Ask a Ranger: Hummingbirds, a familiar buzz in the air in Flagstaff | Local

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ELLEN WADE Special for the Daily Sun

Around April 15 each year, residents of Flagstaff begin to hear a buzz in the air. Newcomers are sometimes surprised to learn that this humming sound is not made by insects, but by hummingbirds.

Even though there are almost no flowers blooming here in April and nighttime temperatures regularly dip below freezing, broad-tailed hummingbirds choose this month to travel from mild Mexico to the cold northern East. Arizona. They travel alone; the males—whose wings make the peculiar trilling sound while the bird is in flight—usually arrive first. The birds feed on small insects, especially spiders, and have been observed drinking sap from holes drilled in trees by other birds.

Broad-tailed hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus) are sometimes confused with ruby-throated hummingbirds because broad-tailed males sport dark red gorgets or throat feathers. Ruby-throated males have similar gorgets, but ruby-throated are almost never found in western states. The white tips on the tail feathers of broad-tailed species make them easy to distinguish. They sometimes tilt their tail upwards when feeding or spread their tail feathers while flying.

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Hummingbirds of all species feed on the nectar of nutrient-rich flora, preferring varieties that are red in color and tubular in shape. Flowers such as penstemons or scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) are thought to have evolved in tandem with hummingbirds, as the birds perform pollination services for plants as they travel from plant to plant while feeding on their nectar.






A mother broadtail feeds her young.


Rick Ruess, courtesy


Flagstaff residents know to turn off their feeders as soon as they hear the wings of broad-tailed bucks chirping in April. Observers believe that individual birds return to the same feeders for several years. A mixture of one part table sugar to four parts tap water, lightly boiled and allowed to cool, creates the synthetic nectar birds need to sustain their high-energy lifestyles.

Female broadtails that arrive later, less colored and leaner, are ready to breed and nest upon arrival. Females especially need nutrition. Each builds its small nest by itself, often in the same place where it nested the previous year. Males do not help with nest building, incubate eggs, or help feed young birds. Instead, the males gallop off to mate with other females!

Due to the nestlings’ protein needs, the mother broadtail brings partially digested insects to the babies, using her long beak to push crushed aphids or spiders down their little throats. The young leave the nest within a month of hatching.

As broadtails nest in northern Arizona, another species arrives: the aggressive rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus). These small but spirited birds migrate 2,000 miles from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, often as far as Alaska, each spring. These high latitudes are where they breed. Their journey north takes them through California, so we don’t see these hummingbirds in Flagstaff until mid-summer when they return home. Around the 4th of July you will see tiny copper males and females at feeders and flowers. Some of these birds are relative hatchlings, just a month out of the nest.

The nature of the 3-inch-long Rufous Hummingbird is to be territorially aggressive. Silent and stealthy when hunting other birds, these birds do not protect their nests or their young: it is their personal food supply. The southward migration takes Rufous Hummingbirds through Arizona, but despite their characteristic color, they do not breed in the Copper State.

Broad-tailed and rufous hummingbirds visit Flagstaff each summer in large numbers. Other species are occasionally seen here: Anna, black-chinned and Costa varieties, according to Arizona Daily Sun (Svea Conrad, August 2, 2020). But we can still count on the return of two species of hummingbirds to our mountain town each year: Broadtails in April and Rufous in July. Both hummingbird species will be gone from Flagstaff by October. Flagstaff birdwatchers can visit nearby Sedona to see several species that stay there year-round.

The Flagstaff Arboretum (open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) maintains a dozen hummingbird feeders on its 90 acres of gardens. It is an ideal place to observe and photograph these beautiful birds.

Ellen Wade has been a traveling Ranger for 13 years. She enjoys hiking, biking, bird watching and most other outdoor activities.

NPS/USFS Roving Rangers volunteer through a unique agreement between Flagstaff-area National Monuments and Coconino National Forest to provide interpretive Ranger walks and lectures in the Flagstaff area each summer.

Submit your questions for the weekly “Ask a Ranger” column to [email protected]

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