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Spotlight Bird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The Black-chinned Hummingbird, residing primarily in the western US and Mexico, is distinguished by its adaptive habitat range and a distinctive black gorget with iridescent purple. With remarkable flight abilities and high metabolism, these birds embody the extraordinary beauty and resilience of nature.

Essay by Ella Sorensen

There is something so familiar and unique about a hummingbird, that scarce exists the human who cannot instantly recognize it as a hummingbird when spying a tiny shape, darting between flowers, hovering briefly, probing into the flower with its long needle-like bill before zipping onto the next blossom or returning to perch on a near-by branch.  

Hummingbirds occur only in the Western Hemisphere.  The range of the Black-chinned Hummingbird includes mostly the western US and much of central and northern Mexico.  There is a suggestion that after nesting at lower elevations, some follow the emerging flowers upward as spring and summer march up the mountains before the birds depart for winter mostly in Mexico.

Adult male hummingbirds usually come adorned with brilliant iridescent chin feathers often of red, orange, or pink coloration called a gorget.  When the gorget briefly catches sunlight, it glistens and glows like an ember. But typically, as the bird darts about or sits on a perch, the gorget appears wholly black.  As its name implies, the gorget of the Black-chinned hummingbird is actually black.  Only a small band of iridescent purple feathers form a small strip at the base.  Females and juveniles display dull colors of green, white, and gray and can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from other non-adult male hummingbird species.

Unlike many bird species whose preferred habitat correlates with elevation or inches of rain, the key to productive hummingbird habitat is simply the abundance of flower nectar for energy, insects for protein and other food essentials,  and tall trees or shrubs for nesting and perching.  The Black-chinned hummingbird is a habitat generalist. In Utah, it nests commonly in deserts, mountain forests, and even in urban settings. 

Photos by Scott Baxter

Estimates of total hummingbird species in the world are around 350. Only the tyrant flycatcher family lists more species than the hummingbird family. Most numerous near the Equator, as latitudes move south or north, the number of nesting hummingbird species declines.  Only five species, including the Black-chinned, regularly nest in Utah.

The wings of a hummingbird are specially designed for prolonged hovering, flying rapidly backward, and maneuvering like a helicopter.  The origin of the name hummingbird comes from a hum produced by wing movement. Their long tongue extends far into the flower for nectar.  Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of all vertebrates.  Their heart can beat 480 times a minute, their wings can beat 80 times per second.  Constant whirling flight can burn up to the human equivalent of 150,000 calories per day.

A hummingbird essay recorded in the late 1500s by Sahagun, a Franciscan priest,  as relayed to him by Aztec elders: 

"In the winter, it hibernates.  It inserts its bill in a tree; [hanging] there it shrinks, shrivels, molts.  And when [the tree] sprouts, when it leafs out, at this time [the hummingbirds] also grow features once again.  And when it thunders for rain, at that time it awakens, moves, and comes to life." (excerpted from Florentine Codex)

Folklore inspired long ago by keen observation of a reality! Hummingbirds are one of a few birds that have the ability when food resources are short or temperature dips, to enter for a short period into a state similar to hibernation called torpor. Hummingbird metabolism requires enormous amounts of energy. Torpor allows the hummingbird to lower physiological activity by reducing metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature and thereby reserve energy for when conditions are favorable.

The tiny Black-chinned Hummingbird, weighing little more than a copper penny, is truly among the most incredibly beautiful jewels of nature.

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