Along the Path: Hummingbirds, the Fastest Thing on Wings

By Susan Rothrock Deo

Hummer! I recognized the feathery buzz whirring by my head earlier. Now, as I write, I catch sight of one through the window by my desk. She is sitting on a telephone wire draped toward our house, her long, curved beak a slender exclamation point to her tiny body. SITTING!

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 I’ve always been fascinated by hummingbirds, constantly in motion, so small their eggs are no larger than the eraser on a pencil. It wasn’t until I moved to California from the East Coast that I saw one at rest. Among all the birds, hummingbirds have the highest body temperature, the fastest heart rate, and the largest brain and heart in proportion to their size. Their life span is five to eight years in Southern California. In eight years a hummingbird’s heart beats about three million times, the same number of heartbeats in the life of an eighty-year-old human! They can fly 25-30 mile

s per hour, and males have been clocked at 60 miles per hour in their courting dives. They require more energy to live than any other warm-blooded animal. It’s estimated they visit 1,000 individual flowers a day. No wonder they sit and rest from time to time!

A number of species visit Southern California during migration. A few, like the Anna’s and Allen’s, are year-round residents. Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna, is our largest hummingbird and abundant year-round in Los Angeles County, especially the coastal lowlands, foothills, and urban areas. Anna’s back is iridescent bronze-green with a gray chest and belly. The male’s crown, chin and throat are a brilliant rose red. It’s the only North American hummingbird with a red crown. Allen’s hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin, is also a common resident. This aggressive hummer used to be restricted to the Channel Islands. Allen’s are smaller than Anna’s and have rufous (rust colored) accents instead of red. Males in breeding plumage sport a green back with rufous on the tail, sides and flanks. They are resident in coastal sage, willows, gardens, and parks throughout the coastal lowlands, especially common near the coast. Both species expanded their ranges as we landscaped with more and more exotic shrubs.

The adult hummer’s throat patches, or gorgets, are covered with iridescent feathers. Pigment does not create their coloring, instead the structure of the feathers reflects different colors as the bird moves and the angle of the light changes. Hummingbirds feed on flowers of many colors, without preference, but their vision skews red so they can see red flowers better.

Did you know that trained volunteers throughout Southern California rescue hummingbirds: abandoned babies, injured adults, and more? Read fascinating stories of hummingbirds and their rescuers in The Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood by Terry Masear (2015).

Wishing you abundant opportunities to observe these fascinating creatures, in your yard and on the trail.

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