Our bird identification guide to Calliope hummingbirds and expert advice about this colorful hummingbird species.
Calliope hummingbird photo by Steve Byland.
The calliope is the only member of its genus, Stellula, which means "little star." The male's gorget is unique, with dagger-shaped, wine-purple rays that flare out like a burst of fireworks during his courtship display. The female looks like a miniature female broad-tailed hummingbird, with a pale gray face, delicately speckled throat, and muted rufous wash on her underparts. Both sexes have plump bodies, short necks, and tails that often fall short of their rounded wing tips. Males weigh around 2.5 grams (less than 1/10th of an ounce), about one-fourth the weight of a black-capped chickadee.
Their breeding range extends from the mountains of California, Nevada and Utah north into central British Columbia. In the short summers of the higher altitudes and latitudes, the calliope's small size is an advantage. The birds arrive when the first flowers bloom, raise their rapidly maturing young on the brief summer bounty, then retreat to tropical climes for the winter. In all, they may spend only a few weeks on their northern nesting grounds.
To cope with the challenges of mountain life, the female often builds her nest in the shelter of an overhanging branch. Even when nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, the protected location and the nest's thick walls shield the eggs and nestlings from the chill.
Of course, being the little guy also has its disadvantages. Calliopes' bills are so short that the nectar in deeper blossoms is out of reach. Often, they are driven away from choice flower patches by more aggressive species, such as rufous hummingbirds. Nevertheless, they can be as pugnacious as any other hummingbird.
At summer's end, most calliopes travel south through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madre Occidental to southwestern Mexico, a journey of up to 2,300 miles. A few of them winter in southeastern states, and occasional strays find themselves even farther from their species' normal haunts. In November 2001, two young males visiting a park on Manhattan Island became the first recorded calliopes to visit New York and were featured in The New York Times.
One unanswered question about the calliope is what inspired 19th-century ornithologist John Gould to name this unmusical little bird after the Greek muse of epic poetry, whose name means "beautiful-voiced." Perhaps Gould was simply making a joke for future generations of bird lovers to puzzle over, but isn't there something heroic about a tiny creature that undertakes such extraordinary migrations and stands up to giants?