People obviously love hummingbirds. A large audience came to hear Kurt Leuschner, a professor at Palm Desert’s College of the Desert, speak to the Redlands horticulture group about hummingbirds. He started out reminding us that we’re lucky. While folks in the East get excited about their one species, the Ruby-throated, that’s better than Europe, Africa and the rest of the Old World – which have none. Here in Southern California we’re blessed to see at least a half-dozen hummingbirds and double that if you travel to Southeast Arizona. There’s a lot of info online about them so I’ll give a rundown on aspects that surprised me.
They’re Smart and Short-lived Hummingbirds have the largest brain in proportion to their body. But they don’t live long. The record for a hummingbird is 12 years but usually only live three to five years. Leuschner said this follows the general rule that larger birds live longer.
Feeder Rules – Don’t Use Red Dye Native plants, along with some exotics that bloom year-round is best for feeding hummingbirds. However, feeders help during those times when little is blooming. But he warned, “Don’t use red dye – it’s not necessary and it’s bad for hummingbirds.” He recommended using ordinary sugar, using water that is hot (it doesn’t have to be boiled), enough to dissolve the sugar at four parts water to one part sugar. Get a feeder that comes apart and cleans easily. Leuschner prefers one called the Best Hummingbird Feeder. Change the juice once a week and wash it with dish soap. I also learned that if you’re going to have more than one, it’s best to spread them out so that one territorial male doesn’t hog them all. Leuschner’s technique is to have one on each corner of his house so four resident males can each guard one as their territory.
Valuable Insect Eaters Hummingbirds need to eat one-half their body weight each day, and especially in breeding season they eat a lot of insects. One of the talk’s attendees was Highland resident Peter Brierty, who recently retired as the San Bernardino County’s Assistant Chief and Fire Marshall. One of his many projects was helping residents reduce potential fire fuel caused by infestations such as the bark-beetle. “I was driving down to visit a resident who had a large property of old trees at risk of infestation,” said Brierty, who was surprised that so many trees in the forest were dead while this residents’ and his adjacent neighbors were healthy. The only difference he could see was the dozens of hummingbirds attracted to the property’s dozen feeders, who appeared to also be eating the tiny insects up in the trees.
Southern California Species The Anna’s hummingbird is our common, year-round hummingbird in the Inland Empire, but Leuschner discussed five other species, along with info about when you’ll likely see them and what to look for. The colorful descriptions below are the males; although in some species the females will show some color.
- Anna’s: The Anna’s Hummingbird has the crimson-red throat, and lives year-round in the Inland Empire, though it may migrate up to the mountains in summer.
- The purple-throated Costa’s Hummingbird is common in the desert (it used to be called the desert hummingbird). French researchers, the first to study it, gave it a French name.
- The Black-chinned Hummingbird, which, surprise, has a black chin with purple under it, will be seen only in summer, most often in Coachella Valley or Big Morengo Canyon.
- The Rufous Hummingbird is bright orange (the female shows some orange too), very aggressive and makes a buzzing sound. In fall and spring, it migrates through on its way to/from the Rockies or Sierras, often traveling over 1500 miles.
- Allen’s Hummingbird is more common near Los Angeles but is sometimes seen here, and sports orange and green on its back.
- The Calliope is very small, has some orange colors like the Rufous. Best seen in the fall up in the San Jacinto mountains or upper San Bernardino Mountains.
- Lastly, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is seen in the Arizona desert migrating through. It’s male makes a whirring, mechanical sound.
Leuschner also shared his favorite places to see hummingbirds and other birds, which I’ve written up in Favorite Birding Spots in Inland Southern California.