Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)

Synonyms: Trochilus rufus
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderApodiformes
FamilyTrochilidae
GenusSelasphorus (1)
SizeLength: 7 - 9 cm (2)
Wingspan: 11 cm (2)
Weight2 - 5 g (2)

The rufous hummingbird is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Described as one of the feistiest hummingbirds in North America, the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is well-known for its aggressive defence of flowers and feeders, even against species many times its own size (2) (4) (5). It is a relatively small and compact species, with short wings, a tail that tapers to a point, and a slender, straight, black bill (2) (4) (5) (6).

As its common name suggests, the plumage of the male rufous hummingbird is largely rufous (reddish-brown), with a vivid, iridescent, orange-red throat patch, a green forehead, a white breast, and a white spot behind each eye. However, individuals can show considerable variation in the amount of rufous plumage, with some having scattered green feathers or quite extensive green on the back and crown (2) (4) (5) (6). The tail is relatively long, with pointed ends to the feathers, and the outer tail feathers have dark tips (4) (5).

The female rufous hummingbird is much greener than the male, with green upperparts, white underparts and rufous flanks. As in the male, there is a white spot behind the eye. The female’s throat may be plain, streaked with bronze or greenish spots, or spotted with orange-red, usually with an iridescent reddish spot in the centre. The tail is rounded, with a dark band near the end and white tips to the outer feathers (2) (4) (5) (6). The juvenile rufous hummingbird resembles the female, but its beak has a wrinkled rather than smooth upper mandible (4) (5).

The rufous hummingbird is very similar in appearance to the closely related Allen’s hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin. The male can usually be distinguished from the male Allen’s hummingbird by the rufous rather than green back, but females, juveniles and males with greener backs can be almost impossible to distinguish (2) (4) (5). The two species may also sometimes interbreed (4).

The calls of the rufous hummingbird include a warning ‘chip’ note and a rapid ‘eeeee didayer didayer didayer, given towards intruders. This species does not sing, but the male may make a ‘chu-chu-chu-chu’ sound when displaying towards females (2) (4). Both the male and female rufous hummingbird produce a loud hum through the rapid beating of their wings, but the male also makes a distinctive, high-pitched trill, produced when air moves rapidly over the narrow, pointed tips of the outer primary feathers (2) (4) (5).

The rufous hummingbird breeds further north than any other hummingbird species, with its breeding range extending from southeast Alaska, through southwest Canada and into the northwest United States, as far south as northwest California (2) (4) (5) (6). It also undertakes one of the longest migrations of any bird in relation to its body size (2) (4) (5), travelling south to spend the winter from southern California and the Gulf Coast of the USA, south to Mexico (2) (4) (5) (6).

The migration of the rufous hummingbird follows a clockwise circuit, with individuals generally moving south along two major routes on either side of the Great Basin Desert, and travelling north again on a more westerly route, along the Pacific coast (2) (4) (5) (6). These routes track the availability of the flowers on which this species feeds (4).

The rufous hummingbird is being increasingly recorded outside of its normal range, in the south-eastern and sometimes also the north-eastern United States and Canada, where it may be attracted to artificial feeders in autumn and winter (4) (5). It has also been reported from the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands (7).

During the breeding season, the rufous hummingbird is found in a range of habitats, including forests, thickets, open or shrubby areas, swamps, meadows, farmland, yards, parks and gardens (2) (4) (5) (6). On migration, it is commonly found in mountain meadows, often in disturbed areas where its food flowers are in bloom, at elevations as high as 3,840 metres (2) (4) (6).

In its winter range, the rufous hummingbird inhabits oak-pine forests, shrubby openings in forest, arid thorn forest and scrubland (2) (4) (5) (6).

Like other hummingbirds, the rufous hummingbird feeds on the nectar of flowers, mainly from species with colourful, tubular, short- to medium-length flowers, including columbines (Aquilegia), scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja), fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), lilies, larkspurs (Delphinium), currants (Ribes) and heaths (2) (4) (5) (6). It is also a common visitor to artificial hummingbird feeders (2).

The diet of the rufous hummingbird is supplemented with small invertebrates, including gnats, midges, flies, spiders and aphids, which may be caught in the air, plucked from spider webs, or gleaned from plants (2) (4) (6). This species also feeds on the sap of trees such as alder (Alnus) and willow (Salix), through holes excavated by woodpeckers, such as the red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) (4) (5) (6). Sap and insects are often taken when the hummingbirds first arrive at the breeding grounds, when few spring flowers are available (4) (5). The rufous hummingbird is also able to enter a temporary state of torpor to survive periods of food shortage (4).

The rufous hummingbird is aggressively territorial, defending patches of flowers not only during breeding, but also on temporary stop-overs during migration (4). At all times of year, this belligerent small bird will attack any visiting hummingbirds, including larger species (2) (4) (5), and has even been seen chasing chipmunks from its nests (2).

The breeding season of the rufous hummingbird runs from March to July (4) (5) (6). The male rufous hummingbird performs a display flight as part of courtship, calling while flying in a steep oval or in the shape of a ‘J’. If the female perches, the male may fly in a series of horizontal figure-eights (2) (4) (5), a display that is also sometimes directed at competitors and intruders on the territory (4) (5). The nest of this species is built by the female alone, and consists of a small cup of soft plant down, covered on the outside with lichens, moss and bark, which are held together with spider webs (2) (4) (5) (6). The nest is usually well hidden in a shrub, conifer or oak tree (2) (4) (5), and small colonies of up to 20 nests have sometimes been reported (2) (6). 

The rufous hummingbird lays 2 to 3 eggs, which are incubated by the female for 15 to 17 days (2) (4) (5) (6). The chicks leave the nest after about 20 to 26 days (4) (6). The rufous hummingbird is surprisingly long-lived, with the oldest recorded individual surviving for over eight years (2) (4).

The rufous hummingbird has a large and widespread population, and is not currently considered at risk of extinction (7). However, it appears to be undergoing a slow decline, the reasons for which are not fully understood (2) (4) (6).

The provision of artificial hummingbird feeders may support unusually high populations of rufous hummingbirds in some areas (2) (6), although they may also expose the birds to dangers such as cats and collisions with windows (5). Although logging would be expected to open up sunny clearings and increase flower abundance, the long-term effects of habitat destruction on this species are unclear (4) (5). The long, perilous migration of the rufous hummingbird increases its vulnerability to habitat changes across its range (5) (6), while its relatively short nesting season may limit its ability to recover from any population declines (5).

International trade in the rufous hummingbird should be carefully regulated under its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3). There are no other known conservation measures specifically targeting this small hummingbird, but it may benefit from the provision of artificial hummingbird feeders in gardens (2) (5) (6).

Priorities for future research into the rufous hummingbird include investigating its breeding biology and reproductive success, its diet, and the dynamics of its populations (4).

Find out more about the rufous hummingbird and its conservation:

More information on bird conservation in the Americas:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Rufous hummingbird (March, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/rufous_hummingbird/id
  3. CITES (March, 2011)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Healy, S. and Calder, W.A. (2006) Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/053/
  5. Williamson, S.L. (2001) A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  6. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1999) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-Owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  7. BirdLife International (March, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2116