The Anna’s Hummingbird featured in the photo, above, hovers in the air as she sips nectar from one flower after another on the Mexican Sage she’s visiting. Hummingbirds in general, and the Anna’s Hummingbird in particular, are delightful birds to watch. We’ve had one or more pairs of Anna’s in our neighborhood for years. Anna’s are boisterous, chattering loudly as they speed through the backyard. But while they announce their presence boldly, they’re challenging to locate when they alight on a branch—even if you know many of their favorite perches. After all, they’re among the smallest North American songbirds: only about 4 inches long. And when they perch, they normally sit quietly, not calling attention to themselves.
But for a tiny bird, the Anna’s is hardly timid. I’ll sit outside with one of our cats, and a resident Anna’s will streak over and elevator up-and-down an arm’s length or two away as if to let us know that we’re not at all welcome in her backyard. The Anna’s amazes with its aeronautical acrobatics—quickly climbing straight up until it disappears into thin air—and its speed. A territorial species, an Anna’s will bullet after any other hummers that venture into its space, scolding them loudly as it gives chase.
Like all members of its species, the Anna’s Hummingbird sports iridescent plumage (particularly on its neck and head feathers), and the male is quite lovely. Here’s how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them: “With their iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats, they are more like flying jewelry than birds.”
And they continue to adapt as a species. Avian biologists believe the ancestral forebears of the hummingbird split from Swifts (an insectivore) as many as 42 million years ago. The planet was emerging from the mass extinction event that claimed most dinosaur and plant species, and new nectar-rich plants began to emerge in the new age that prevailed. Ancestral hummingbirds apparently evolved a mechanism to feed on nectar at this time, and the abundance and diversity of these prehistoric flowers allowed primitive hummingbird species to multiply and diversify. They eventually spread from Eurasia to South America, where they co-evolved with species of flowers pollinated by specific species of hummingbirds.
Today, hummingbirds populate most of the Western Hemisphere and vary greatly in appearance. One species, the Bee (or Helena) Hummingbird—the smallest bird on the planet (and often mistaken for a moth)—is no more than 2.4 inches long and weighs no more than .071 ounces. It lives only in Cuba and the West Indies and feeds on a dozen or so species of flowering plants. The much larger Giant Hummingbird (± 0.85 ounces and ± 8.5 inches long) lives in the Andes.
Seventeen hummingbird species (including the Anna’s) call North America home. Do any live near you?
You can learn more about Hummingbirds and their origins in the following articles:
• Anna’s Hummingbird [Cornell Lab of Ornithology]
• Anna’s Hummingbird: Calypso anna [National Geographic]
• Anna’s Hummingbird [Wikipedia]
• Hummingbirds [Audubon Society]
• Hummingbirds [Defenders of Wildlife]
• Hummingbirds [National Zoo]
• Hummingbirds’ 22-million-year-old history of remarkable change is far from complete
• Bee Hummingbird [Wikipedia]
• Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)
• Giant Hummingbird [Wikipedia]
• World’s Oldest Hummingbirds
• Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event