Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus 


The fiery color of this small hummingbird matches its temperament. It is a common fall migrant in the Rocky Mountains, with a pugnacious nature that makes it a less-than-welcome guest at some feeding stations. The Rufous breeds farther north than any other hummingbird and travels phenomenal distances each year between its summer and winter homes. It is an important pollinator in a the cool cloudy climate of the Pacific Northwest, where cold-blooded insect pollinators are at a disadvantage. This was likely the first hummingbird encountered by humans who crossed the Bering land bridge approximately 20,000 years ago.

Identification: A small hummingbird (3.5-4 inches) with medium-short all black bill and extensive rufous in the plumage.

Adult Male: Back varies from solid rufous or rufous with scattered green spangles (typical) to more than half green; crown bright green. Underparts creamy white with rufous ‘vest.’ Gorget brilliant scarlet to orange, appearing golden or even yellow-green from some angles. Cheeks and eyebrows dull rufous, lores dusky. Black-tipped rufous tail is long, extending past wingtips. Pointed tail feathers become progressively narrower from R1 to R5, which resembles a steak knife. R2 distinctly notched on inner web near tip.

Adult Female: Bright green above, white below strongly washed with rufous on sides, flanks, and undertail coverts, extending onto edges of rump. Face and sides of gorget washed rufous. Gorget creamy white to ivory, lightly to heavily spangled with green to bronze (concentrated along sides); iridescent red-orange to coppery feathering in center of gorget varies from a few small spangles to dense ragged-edge triangle or diamond. Rounded tail extends past wingtips, shows extensive rufous in R2-5; R2 usually shows shallow indentation near tip, narrow green band separating rufous base from black tip. R5 narrow.

Juvenile: Male: Similar to adult female but usually with gorget more heavily marked, often with large mirrorlike gorget feathers in patches throughout gorget area or concentrated in lower center of throat. R2 rufous and black, without green.

Female: Ressembles adult female but with fewer and smaller gorget markings (center of throat may be unmarked white), broader outer tail feathers with less rufous, small white tip on R2.

Similar Species: Allen’s Hummingbird, typical adult male Allen’s has no notch at tip of R2, narrower tail feathers overall, with R5 extremely narrow and stiletto-like. Adult female and immature Rufous are generally indistinguishable from Allen’s in the field but may be separated by close examination of tail characteristics in hand or in photos. Broad-tailed Hummingbird, female and immature males are larger with slightly longer bill, grayish face, broader tail feathers with less rufous and more extensive green, paler rufous wash on underparts; no rufous in R1, on rump or uppertail coverts. Calliope Hummingbird have shorter bill, much shorter tail with small amount of rufous, mostly on edges of feathers; metallic gorget feathers of immature male rose to wine red, elongate and narrow at corners of gorget. Outer primaries broad, blunt-tipped.

Behavior: Highly aggressive and territorial, even in migration. Regularly drives larger hummingbirds from nectar sources. Visits a variety of plants with short to medium-length flowers, including columbines, fireweed, skyrocket, bee-balm, Indian paintbrushes, larkspurs, honeysuckles, red currant, salmonberry, Rocky Mountain bee-plant. Takes sap from wells drilled by sapsuckers. Early arrivals on breeding grounds feed mainly on insects until flowers begin to bloom. Dive display of males is oval or U-shaped, accompanied by a series of dit-dit-dit-deeer dropping in pitch, followed by popping sounds probably made by tail feathers.

Habitat: Breeds in forest openings, edges, and brushy second growth in conifer and mixed conifer-hardwod forests, including coastal temperate rain forest. Winters in a variety of habitats in western and southern Mexico, from scrubby second growth and thorn forest to high oak and pine-oak forests. Northern wintering birds prefer gardens with feeders, winter-blooming flowers, and dense vegetation for shelter.


No subspecies are described. Its closest relative is Allen’s Hummingbird, so close that some authors have suggested lumping them into a single species.

Adult males are highly variable in amount of green iridescence on upper back, from almost immaculate rufous to a scattering of green feathers to entirely green with rufous rump and uppertail coverts.
Females tend to acquire more iridescence in gorget with each molt. Gorgets of older females may be almost entirely orange-red.
Molt occurs December to February on the wintering grounds. Sometimes molt completes during migration.

Conservation Status: More information needed.

Population declines have been noted over parts of breeding range, for reasons still unclear. Extensive logging within both breeding and wintering ranges would be expected to increase nectar availability, opening sunny clearings that support favourite flowers; this does not seem to have had positive effects on populations. Feeders supplement natural food supplies but expose birds to dangers such as windows, cats and pesticides. Short nesting season and perilous migration may limit ability of populations to rebound from declines due to habitat destruction. Currently on Partners in Flight WatchList.

References: Williamson, Sheri L. Peterson Field Guides – Hummingbirds of North America. New York: Houghton
Mifflin, 2001.
Capture Rates

Common in relatively high numbers at Colony Farms, Rufous Hummingbird capture rate (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) occurs from April - August. It peaks in July corresponding to juvenile dispersal. This hummingbird migrates long distances south for the winter as indicated by zero capture rates from October - March.


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