The White-sided hillstar (Oreotrochilus leucopleurus) is a species of hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of South America. With its glittering white flank plumes and energetic flight, this high-altitude nectarivore has captivated ornithologists and birdwatchers alike.
The White-sided hillstar is a medium-sized hummingbird, measuring 10-12 cm in length and weighing 5-8 grams. The male has an iridescent gorget that glitters emerald green in good light. This gorget is bordered below with a band of glittering blue. The crown and throat are black, and the back is metallic bronze-green. As the name suggests, the flanks are adorned with distinctive white plumes which are especially prominent during courtship displays. The female is similar but has a speckled throat and lacks the male’s elongated flank plumes. Juveniles resemble adult females but with buffy fringes to the body plumage.
Distribution and Habitat
This species is found along the Andes mountains from Venezuela to Bolivia. Its habitat consists of open scrub and grasslands at elevations from 2500-5000 m. In some areas of its range, it occupies Polylepis woodlands. It prefers areas with flowering shrubs and Espeletia plants, an important nectar source.
Behavior and Ecology
The White-sided hillstar feeds on nectar from typical high-elevation flowers such as species in the Asteraceae and Ericaceae plant families. It also takes small insects. Its flight is direct and powerful. This species is territorial, with males defending feeding areas from other males.
Courtship displays are elaborate, with the male hovering in front of the female with his iridescent gorget fully expanded. He also fans his flank plumes, exposing the white sides. If the female is receptive she will crouch with fluttering wings. Pairs also perform flying chase displays. The female builds a delicate cup nest on a rocky ledge or in a crevice, often under an overhang. She incubates the two white eggs alone.
The White-sided hillstar has a wide distribution and large population, estimated at 500,000-5,000,000 individuals. Partners in Flight list it as a species of least concern. While some local populations may be threatened by habitat loss, the overall population is considered stable. Expanding agriculture and mining operations represent threats through habitat degradation and disturbance. This species occurs in several protected areas throughout its Andean range.
For indigenous Quechua people of the Andes, hummingbirds held cultural and spiritual significance, representing joy and the continuity between life and afterlife. Specific folklore about the White-sided hillstar is scarce, but it seems plausible that its glittering plumes earned it distinction in local mythologies. More research into Andean folklore may uncover symbolic links between this species and concepts like freedom, luck, or ancestry. As a denizen of high mountains, it may have connections to reverence for lofty places. This unique bird likely inspired many imaginations.
While not currently threatened, high-elevation tropical species could face threats from climate change. As humans continue altering once-remote landscapes, preserving habitat corridors will be key. Ecotourism may offer incentives for protecting hillstar habitat, but must be responsibly managed. Because it migrates seasonally, conservation requires international cooperation across the Andes. Further studies of the White-sided hillstar’s migration routes and adaptability to habitat changes will allow more predictive population models. With responsive conservation policies, this gleaming jewel of the Andes should continue dazzling future generations.
In summary, the White-sided hillstar is a visually striking hummingbird adapted to the harsh conditions of the high Andes. Its glittering plumage and energetic displays have likely made it a subject of fascination and myth. While currently stable, thoughtful management of climate change and habitat loss threats will be needed to ensure the persistence of this unique species. With appropriate conservation measures, the hillstar’s flashy plumes should continue to brighten the mountains of South America.