Look for Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds in the Mountains
Learn how to attract, identify and observe a broad-tailed hummingbird in their high-elevation habitat throughout the western states.
Broad-Tailed Hummingbird Sounds
Hummingbirds aren’t usually known for the noises they make—but broad-tailed hummingbirds are loud visitors. Females keep up a constant vocal twittering, and males add a loud trill from their specialized wing feathers while in flight. “Once you learn their sound, you won’t forget it!” says David Mehlman, who served as director of the Nature Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program. “The male broad-tailed hummingbird is the most distinctive-sounding of all North American hummingbirds.” If you live in the mountains of the West or visit the region in summer, you’re bound to hear these very common and abundant hummingbirds, maybe even before you see them.
What Does a Broad-Tailed Hummingbird Look Like?
Aside from the noise, it is the male’s bold throat that first catches attention, not the tail. Adult males sport a showy rose-magenta patch on the throat called a gorget. It’s a bright contrast to the tail, which is slightly wider and longer than that of most other hummingbirds found in the U.S. and Canada, extending beyond the wingtips when the bird is perched and resting. Both male and female have a green back and crown and a white chest. Females have rusty sides and white tips on the outer tail feathers.
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What Do Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds Eat?
The plentiful nectar of alpine meadow wildflowers draws crowds of broad-tailed hummingbirds to the Rockies, Sierras, Guadalupes and other ranges, spanning from Texas to Montana. Insects and tree sap round out their regular menu of high-elevation blooms. But even in the mountain breeding grounds, broad-tailed hummers don’t form pair bonds. Males may mate with several females and they tend to perch on high vantage points near feeders, keeping a lookout for other males. Crowds of females and, later in the season, juveniles swarm the feeders from dawn to dusk.
Broad-Tailed Hummingbird Migration
During migration to and from Mexico, broad-taileds turn up at lower elevations, sometimes even visiting cities. David’s home in New Mexico is about a mile above sea level, but broad-taileds visit only when passing through. “If I want to see them in summer, I have to head up to 8,000 or 9,000 feet,” he says. Gardeners who live in the mountains or in the migration path of broad-taileds can attract these fliers with the usual suite of hummingbird flowers, such as penstemon, red hot poker, trumpet honeysuckle, salvia and bee balm.
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How to Attract Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds
- Hang a few feeders instead of one, because these territorial birds come in droves.
- Several types of western hummingbirds, including broad-taileds, are now expanding east, showing up in the Gulf States in fall and winter. While no one knows exactly why, David Mehlman jokes, “Maybe it’s the gumbo.”
- The red birds in a tree shrub (Scrophularia macrantha, Zones 4 to 9) attracts broad-tailed hummingbirds where it grows wild in the Southwest. This favorite native plant produces nectar-filled flowers that look just like little birds.