Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Broad-tailed Hummingbird the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
The broad-tailed hummingbird is the hummingbird of the Rocky Mountain region, ranging from southern Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to the Valley of Mexico, and it is essentially a mountain bird.
It has been recorded from extreme eastern California, Inyo Mountains, and eastward as far as western Nebraska and western Texas.
M. P. Skinner says, in his notes from Yellowstone National Park: "I have seen this little bird at all altitudes from the lowest up to 8.000 feet above sea level. I have seen it in the open, in lodge-pole pine forest, and in alder thickets." Mr. Ridgway (1892) says: "In the Rocky Mountain district proper, as in Colorado, for example, it. breeds at an elevation of from 4,000 to 11,000 feet, and I found it having about the same vertical range in the East Humboldt Mountains." Dr. Jean M. Linsdale (1938) found that "the broad-tailed hummingbird made up almost the entire hummingbird population of the Toyabe Mountains," in Nevada, where "observations indicated that the normal habitat for this species is close to mountain streams." We found it in the Hoachuca Mountains, Ariz., mainly along the swift mountain streams, at altitudes of from about 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Mr. Swartb (1904) says: "It is possible that this species remains in the Huachucas through the winter as I saw a male bird near the base of the mountains on February 28, 1903; and though not at all common, I saw and heard them a number of times through the month of March. It was the middle of April before they began to appear in any numbers, and from then on they became more and more abundant. At this time they were seen at a low altitude and along the canyons; but after the summer rains began and the grass and flowers sprung up, I found them mostly in the highest parts of the range. * * * They breed in the highest parts of the mountains, often in the pines and at a considerable distance from the ground."
Dr. Mearns (1890) writes: "This beautiful hummingbird is an inhabitant of the highest land of Arizona, being rarely encountered until one is well within the spruce belt, when it suddenly becomes extremely plentiful. About springs and willow-edged water-courses swarms of these gay birds congregate. * * * ~~ ranges to the very summit of San Francisco Mountain, being abundant in the highest timber." And Mrs. Bailey (1928) says:
Tire Broad-tailed hummingbird, with the deep rose gorget and green crown, is one of the most abundant birds of the New Mexico mountain region. Its characteristic machine-like clicking, suggestive of the buzz of the cicada, made, Mr. Hensiraw explains, by the "attenuation of the outer primaries," was board by us at all levels from the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 7,400 feet up to 12,700 feet at the highest terrace on the side of Wheeler Peak where there was water; for during the season it follows the successively blooming flowers up the mountain sides. * * *
The Broadtails are seen not only in the uninhabited mountains but occasionally in towns. On the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School Mr.Jensen found two pairs nesting in 1921 and 1922; and in front of a hotel inn Riocon in 1920 Mr. Ligon saw one playing in the spray of a lawn sprinkler.
Major Bendire (1895) writes: "On the first arrival of this species in the spring it is comparatively common in the lower foothills and valleys, and unquestionably breeds here. By the time the young are large enough to leave the nest the majority of the flowers have ceased blooming, and as the country begins to dry up more and more these Hummingbirds retire to higher altitudes in the mountain parks, where everything is now as green and bright looking as it was in the lower valleys two or three months earlier. Here they raise their second broods under nearly similar conditions as the first; the former are by this time well able to take care of themselves and can be seen frolicking about everywhere."
Courtship: Dr. Linsdale (1938) watched two hummers of this species on June 5, 1932, "that were definitely distinguished as a male and female which were going through mating antics. At first both were in flight together. Then the male flew up into the air about 30 feet and made a U-shaped dive. Next, both birds flew up in the air for about 90 feet, one lower than the other by 4 or 5 feet, and they came down at the same time. One flew off to the side but returned immediately. Both flew up and repeated the dive. Then the male hovered for half a minute, over birches and cottonwoods along the stream, until the female disappeared. No noise was made by the male bird while hovering."
Alexander F. Skutch sends me the following note on the courtship of the Guatemalan race of this species: "It was during the brightest, warmest hours of the day that I saw the broad-tailed hummingbirds rising and falling above the brushy growth on the sunny mountainside where the salvias bloomed. One morning I watched a female as she perched within 2 feet of the ground in a little thicket where there was an abundance of flowers. Presently a male of her kind appeared; and she rose a few inches into the air and hovered with her bill pointed toward him, while he poised motionless on beating wings in front of and a little above her, displaying his brilliant red gorget before her eyes. Then of a sudden he rose almost vertically 30 or 40 feet into the air, whence he dropped straight downward and shot through the edge of the thicket directly in front of the female, who meanwhile had resumed her perch. Once past her, he inclined his course slightly upward and darted away over the mountainside."
Nesting: Major Bendire (1895) makes the following general statement about the nests of the broad-tailed hummingbird:
Nests from different localities vary considerably in make-up as well as in size. Nests saddled on good-sized limbs, like those found in the mountains of Colorado, are occasionally almost as large again as others placed on small twigs. One now before rue, from the Ralph collection, taken by Mr. William G. Smith, at Pinewood, Colorado, on June 23, 1892, measures 2 inches in outer diameter by 13/8 inches in depth, while one taken by Mr. Ridgway, in Parley's Park, Utah, on July 28, 1869, measures only 1 5/8 by 1 inch outside measurement. The difference in size of the inner cups of these two nests is even more noticeable, the former measuring 1 inch by three-fourths of an inch, the latter three-fourths by one-half of an inch. While the walls of both of these nests are mainly composed of willow or cottonwood down, their Outer covering Is entirely dissimilar. The outside of the larger one is profusely covered with small bits of lichens, like the nest of the Ruby-throat; the smaller one is decorated with shreds of bark, fine leaves, and dry plant fibers, resembling more the nests of Costa's Hummingbird in this respect. * * * The inner lining appears to ho composed entirely of willow or cottonwood down, and none of the specimens before me contain even a single feather. The outer covering or thatching Is firmly secured to the walls of the nest with spider webs or silk from cocoons. The majority of the nests of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird are placed on low, horizontal branches of willows, alders, cottonwoods, etc., at no great heights from the ground, or overhanging small mountain streams, while others are saddled on boughs or limbs of pine, fir, spruce, or aspens, from 4 to 15 feet from the ground, rarely higher. Occasionally a nest may be placed on a curled-lip piece of bark or on a splinter of a broken limb.
Robert B. Rockwell tells me that "the broad-tailed hummingbird seems to be the only really common species about Colorado Springs. I have seen it as late as September 18, 1911. In 1923 one built a Best on a small branch of an elm tree overhanging a porch outside of our dining room. The nest was about 7 feet above the porch." He tells in his notes of another nest in a yellow pine tree, 8 feet above ground, and of another that was saddled on a dead limb of a small cottonwood, about 5 feet from the ground. He says (1908), in his paper on the birds of Mesa County, Cob., that it "frequents the timber along the streams from 6000 feet up and raises two broods in a season and possibly three. I found them breeding abundantly on Buzzard Creek at about 8000 and found nests containing fresh eggs, freshly hatched young and fledglings just ready to leave the nest on the same day and within a radius of half a mile. * * * One nest found was built on a root protruding from a bank directly over and within 2 feet of the swift running water of Buzzard Creek." Aiken and Warren (1914) say that "one confiding bird built its nest on the electric light fixture directly before the front door of a house, on a porch where people were continually going and coming, and raised two young."
R. C. Tate (1926) says that Oklahoma nests that he has examined were made of "rock-moss, lint from cottonwoods and willows, fine willows, fine shreds of thin inner bark from cottonwoods, and fine rootlets of blue-stem and gama grass."
Frank C. Willard's notes contain the records of six nests in the mountains of southern Arizona, at altitudes ranging from 4,900 to 6,000 feet. One nest was 8 feet up in a scrub oak, three were in sycamores 3 to 20 feet above ground, and two were in pines 20 and 30 feet from the ground.
The six nests of the broad-tailed hummingbird in the Thayer collection in Cambridae show about the same range of variation in size, shape, and make-up as those described by Bendire above. One nest, however, is decidedly smaller, measuring only 114 inches in diameter and 1 inch in height externally; the walls are very thin and the cup is very shallow; it is made of the usual materials, mixed with the winged seeds of milkweed or thistle. Another nest is worthy of mention, as illustrating camouflage to match its surroundings; it was built on a sycamore branch, composed of sycamore or willow cotton, and was decorated on the outside, almost completely covered, with pale gray and buff lichens, producing a soft, buffy effect to harmonize with the branch that held it.
Eggs: The broad-tailed hummingbird lays almost invariably two eggs; I have no record of more or fewer. These are like those of other hummingbirds, pure white, without gloss, and about elliptical-oval in shape. The measurements of 62 eggs average 13 by 8.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 14.5 by 9.9, 13.8 by 10.0, 11.9 by 8.4, and 12.2 by t9 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation is probably about 14 days, as with other related species. Incubation is performed wholly by the female, and she takes full care of the young; she is a brave and devoted mother. The young are fed at first on regurgitated, semidigested food, but as they grow older they are given an increasing amount of minute insects; they are fed at more or less irregular intervals. Dr. Linsdale (1938) says of a nest that he watched: "At 10 o'clock I saw the female go to the nest and feed 5 times, the last for only a short period, and then brood. The first thrust was deep down the gullet of the young, and then the bill was withdrawn gradually. At 10: 12 the female was off the nest. At 10: 19 it returned and fed 4 times and brooded. Each feeding required between 5 and 10 seconds. It was not more than a minute from the time of arrival to time of settling on the nest. The bird faced at least 3 directions while brooding but always stood on the north rim to feed. When it left at 10 : 27, there were clouds and a cold wind. At 10: 31 it returned directly to the nest and began to brood."
Plumages: I have no data on the development of the juvenal plumage in the nestling broad-tailed hummingbird, but it probably does not differ materially from that of the rufous hummingbird, described under that species.
Ridgway (1911) describes the young male, in juvenal plumage, as "similar to the adult female but feathers of upper parts (especially rump and upper tail-coverts) indistinctly margined terminally with pale brownish buff or cinnamon, and lateral rectrices with much less of cinnamomeous on basal portion." The young female, he says, is "similar to the young male but rectrices as in adult female."
Young males begin to acquire some red in the throat before the end of July and assume the fully adult plumage late in the following winter, or early in the spring, at the complete annual molt.
Food: Mrs. Bailey (1928) gives, as the food of the broad-tailed hummingbird in New Mexico, "insects found in flowers, as pentstemon, larkspur, agave, gilia, gooseberry, and on willow catkins." Elsewhere (1904), she says that "the throat of one shot was full of honey and long-tailed, wasp-like insects." Bendire (1895) mentions the flowers of Scrophularia and Ocotilia as favorite feeding pieces. Mr. Rockwell says in his notes: "August 3, 1902, at some willows on a ranch near Crested Butte, I saw four hummingbirds. They seemed to be interested with something in the willows, and I found many perforations in the bark made by sapsuckers; many ants and other insects were about these perforations; whether it was the sap or the insects that attracted the birds I could not tell."
Dr. Linsdale (1938) writes: "On June 18, 1930, at 7,000 feet on Kingston Creek, a female broad-tailed hummingbird was watched which apparently was feeding upon flying insects caught in the air. It was in a small clearing near the creek. After a poise the bird would dart 3 feet after an insect, then poise and go after another. This was repeated half a dozen times, the bird being about 10 feet above the ground."
Apparently this, like other hummingbirds, lives to a large extent on small spiders and minute insects of the orders Diptera, Hymenoptera, Hemiptera, Coleoptera, etc., which it finds in the flowers; nectar, honey, or sap may not be what at first attracted the birds, but they have proved to be very acceptable foods, just as the eastern rubythroat has learned to feed freely from glass containers filled with syrup. Sugar is a very nourishing and strengthening food.
Behavior: Robert Ridgway (1877) writes thus attractively of the behavior of the broad-tailed hummingbird:
The flight of this Hummingbird is unusually rapid, and that of the male is accompanied by a curious screeching buzz, while it is followed through an undulating course. Long before the author of this curious sound was detected its source was a mystery to us. This shrill screeching note Is heard only when the bird is passing rapidly through the air, for when hovering among the flowers Its flight is accompanied by only the usual mused hum common to all the species of the family. During the nesting-season the male is of an exceedingly quarrelsome disposition, and intrepid, probably beyond any other bird, the Flycatchers not excepted. All birds that approach the vicinity of his nest, whether they be his own species or of the size of hawks, are immediately assaulted with great force and pertinacity by this seemingly Insignificant little creature, the vigor of whose attacks, accompanied as they are by the shrill piercing noise we have mentioned, invariably puts to flight any bird assaulted. We have thus seen the Western Kingbird (Tyraunus verticalis), the Blackheaded Grosbeak (Hedymeles rneianoeeplialus), and the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Nisus I ascus) beat a hasty retreat before the persevering assaults of this Hummingbird. When thus teasing an intruder the little champion ascends almost perpendicularly to a considerable height, and then descends with the quickness of a flash at the object he would annoy, which is probably more frightened by the accompanying noise than by the mere attack itself. As we chanced, while hunting on the mountains, to pass through the haunts of this Hummer, it frequently happened that one of the little creatures, prompted apparently by curiosity, would approach close to us and remain poised in one spot, its wings vibrating so rapidly as to appear as a mere haze around the body; now and then it would shift from one side to another, its little black eyes sparkling as it eyed us intently. So close would it finally approach that to strike it with a hat or a stick seemed to be quite an easy matter, hut upon the slightest motion on our part the little thing would vanish so quickly that Its direction could scarcely be traced.
Mr. Swartli (1904) testifies on the swiftness of the flight of this bird, as follows: "The shrill buzz of its wings, that is of the male bird, is frequently heard; and time and again as the sound approached, passed, and died away in the distance, I watched, but in vain, to catch sight of the author of it. Several times I have seen one leave its perch on a twig and dart off in pursuit of another of the same species, and even then was unable to follow him with my eye; and though presently the sound of wings announced his return, I was seldom able to see the bird before he dropped onto his perch. * * * The flight of the female is not accompanied by the buzzing noise made by the male bird, and from their habits they are more inconspicuous and less frequently seen than their mates."
Curiosity is shown in various ways, beside the case cited above. Mr. Rockwell tells, in his notes, of one that flew against the window of a laboratory where he was sitting; another "hovered before a mirror that was hanging to a tent pole outside" of his camp, but "it made no attempt to fight its image"; again it, or another, alighted "on a guy rope, then hovered before the tent, and finally flew over to the car, and in front of every window, apparently attracted by its image." Dr. Mearns (1890) writes: "Its boldness is without parallel; it knows no fear. A member of our party on San Francisco Mountain wore a scarlet cap, but he found these audacious birds so troublesome from their constant attacks upon it that he was glad to pocket it in order to be rid of the irate little furies."
All hummingbirds are fond of bathing, and this species is no exception. On May 15, 1922, while climbing to the summit in the Huachuca Mountains, and following the course of a little mountain stream that flowed swiftly over its stony bed, we stopped to watch a pair of broad-tailed hummingbirds that were bathing in the brook. They chose a spot where the water barely covered a flat stone, settled down in the shallow water, which barely covered their little bodies, and fluttered their wings as they faced upstream; after a few seconds in the cold water, they flew off to a nearby branch to shake them selves and preen their plumage. Dr. Merriam (1890) says that, on San Francisco Mountain: They wake up very early in the morning and go to water at daylight no matter how cold the weather is. During the mouth of August, and particularly the first half of the month, when the mornings were often quite frosty, hundreds of them came to the spring to drink and bathe at break of day. They were like a swarm of bees, buzzing about one's head and darting to and fro in every direction. The air was full of them. They would drop down to the water, dip their feet and bellies, and rise and shoot away as if propelled by an unseen power. They would often dart at the face of an intruder as if bent on piercing the eye with their needle-like bill, and then poise for a moment almost within reach before turning, when they were again lost in the busy throng.
Voice: The loud, screeching sound, referred to by several observers, is probably mechanical, made by the rushing of the air through the flight feathers. Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that "besides their squeaky little song they gave some small staccato notes." And Robert S. Woods (1927b) says: "A rather faint, muffled staccato note is uttered twice in quick succession at the lowest point of its vertically diving nuptial flight."
Field marks: The broad-tailed hummingbird suggests the rubythroated in general appearance, but the rufous edgings in the tail will mark the former, and the ranges of the two hardly come together. Mr. Woods (1927b) writes:
The appearance of the Broad-tailed Hummiugbird is not especially distinctive In any way. The color of the gorget, aside from its somewhat inferior brilliancy, is very similar to that of Anna's Hummingbird, though showing at some angles a more purplish cast. A convenient recognition mark of the male is the rufous edging of certain of the tail feathers, in conjunction with the solid green color of the back and upper tail-coverts. It may he safely said that the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is much more readily identified by ear than by eye. The loud metallic noise produced by the flight of the male is an agreeable, almost musical sound, clearer in tone than that made by the Rufous, Allen's or Black-chinned hummingbirds, while the notes of the female seem more liquid than those of other species.
The rose-pink gorget and the green crown distinguish the broad tailed from the males of other western hummers. But the females arc not so easily recognized; the female broadtail has less rufous in the tail than the rufous or calliope, only the three outer tail feathers being basally rufous; the calliope is considerably smaller; the female broadtail may be distinguished from the female black-chinned by the presence of some rufous in the flanks of the former.
Fall: Mr. Henshaw (1886) found the broad-tailed hummingbirds "extremely numerous" late in summer in the mountains of New Mexico. He says: Young birds were noticed August 1, and by the 10th they became common. By August 1 the males of this species began to get less numerous, and by the 10th there were none; in fact, I saw very few after that date. * * *
In this locality at least there is an evident reason for this. Just about this date the Scrophularia, which is the favorite food plant of the hummers, begins to lose its blossoms, and in a comparatively short time the flowers give place to the seed pods. Though there are other flowers which are resorted to by the hummers, particularly several species of Pentstemon, they by no means afford the luxurious living the former plant does. It seems evident therefore, that the moment its progeny Is on the wing, and its home ties severed, warned of the approach of fall alike by the frosty nights and the decreasing supply of food, off go the males to their inviting winter haunts, to be followed not long after by the females and young. The latter: probably because they have less strength: linger last, and may be seen even after every adult bird has departed.
DISTRIBUTION Range: Western United States and Central America.
Breeding range: The breeding range of the broad-tailed hummingbird extends north to central Nevada (White Mountains, Toquima Mountains, Monitor Mountains, and the Snake Mountains); northern Utah (Brighton, Salt Lake City, and Parleys Park); and northern Wyoming (Yellowstone National Park and Midwest). East to eastern Wyoming (Midwest, Douglas, Wheatland, and Laramie); eastern Colorado (Greeley, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Beulali); New Mexico (Culebra Mountains, Pecos, and the Sacramento Mountains); and southwestern Texas (Chisos Mountains). South to southwestern Texas (Chisos Mountains); northeastern Sonora (Oposura); southern Arizona (Iluachuca Mountains and Santa Rita INlountains); southern Nevada (Charleston Mountains) ; and east-central California (Inyo Mountains). West to eastern California (Inyo Mountains and Cottonwood Creek); and western Nevada (Davis Creek, Chiatovich Creek, and White Mountains). It has been stated that this species breeds south to the "Valley of Mexico," but the evidence is unconvincing, particularly in view of the absence of breeding data through the mountainous regions of northern Mexico. A closely related subspecies is found in the highlands of Guatemala.
Winter range: During the winter season the broad-tailed hummingbirds appear to be concentrated in west-central Mexico, as in the States of Zacatecas (Bolanos), Jalisco (Volcano de Colima), Mexico (Eslava), and Guerrero (Taxco).
Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Arizona: Tucson, March 25; Tombstone, April 4. New Mexico: Apache, April 9; Chloride, April 13. Colorado: Beulah, April 23; Durango, April 20; Boulder, May 4. Wyoming: Laramie, May 20. Utah: Salt Lake City, May 3.
Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure as: Wyoming: Fort Sanders, September 3; Laramie, September 10. Colorado: Durango, September 12; Colorado Springs, September 21. New Mexico: Apache, October 5.
Casual records: A specimen was collected at Mount Vernon, Oreg., on June 30, 1915, and another was seen at Enterprise on July 27, 1921; one was taken at Big Butte, Idaho, on July 19, 1890, and one was seen at Spencer on July 9, 1916; in Montana one was obtained at Chico in 1902, while two have been taken in Glacier National Park, one on May 23 and the other on June 17, 1895; a pair were reported as seen daily between August 18 and 22, 1906, at Glen, Nebr., and one was collected at Kearney on July 22, 1914.
Egg dates: Arizona: 20 records, May 8 to July 30; 10 records, June 11 to July 16, indicatina the height of the season.
Colorado: 18 records, May 22 to July 17; 9 records, June 13 to 26. Utah: 10 records, June 6 to July 23.