If you had to choose one bird for all the Americas what choice would you have but a hummingbird? Three hundred and thirty eight species, twenty two million years of history, and only fossil traces of their distant ancestors outside the hemisphere. They’re called huitzlin in Nahuatl; chuparosa, picaflor, or colibri in Spanish; dah-he-tih-hi in Diné Bizaad. There are hummingbirds in Alaska and hummingbirds in Tierra del Fuego. In New York City, and in Yellowstone.
I think about hummingbirds the most during the winter. In Seattle I’d be walking along the Burke-Gilman on some foundry-gray day and hear the telltale sputter of an Anna’s. I’d look up and there it would be, flashing raspberry among the Indian plum. They start breeding as early as December west of the Cascades, a year-round presence that is entirely an artifact of ornamental plants and feeders. This year they made a run on Spokane. Whether or not the expansion sticks it’s the sort of physiological near-miracle that makes you notice them in the first place. There aren’t many other bird families most anyone can name on sight.
There are no hummingbirds that winter in Santa Fe, but their annual cycle has a pleasing phenology anyway. The first of the four regulars are the broad-taileds, usually in late March or early April. From my office I can watch them move through the yard, north and up. Before long every gorget flashes purple and the black-chinneds take up sentry. Lingering cold weather is no obstacle. Ten minutes after an April hailstorm caught me on my bike and left welts on my thighs they were back at their posts in iridescent vigilance. Somehow they keep the engine running hot enough.
Around the time the monsoons come, if they come, the rufouses and Calliopes show up. The rufouses are famously aggressive. The Calliopes are famously small. It’s the way they both circle the west that gets me, though. Up the Pacific coast in spring, hunkered down to breed in the northern Rockies in the early summer, then down the front range or across the Great Basin on their way to Mexico in the fall. One of those planetary pulses you’ll miss if you aren’t looking for it, or if you’ve stopped birding as much after migration winds down. But with a little luck and a flash of orange at a feeder in August you can be shaken from complacency.
They get even better further south. In Little Cherry Creek north of Silver City I had a Rivoli’s in late summer last year, big enough to make you stop and say, shit, that’s a big hummingbird. Ted Parker found the first Lucifer’s nest in Arizona in lower Guadalupe Canyon in 1973, where on YouTube you can watch dynamite rip through the black grama hillsides as they built the wall, and where the last remains of a migrant worker found in 2020 turned up. Violet-crowneds, berrylines, Costa’s, blue-throateds, broad-billeds: squint at range maps long enough and you can see how these birds stitch the borderlands together across the violence of the line.
In January all this splendor is a distant memory, even down in the Peloncillos. I can’t remember the last hummingbird I saw in town, or when I saw it. It must have been in October. It seemed unremarkable then, the way the last time for anything can. They slipped away and I didn’t notice for months. What you cling to is the idea that they always come back.
sometimes, I wish they, being hummingbirds, would just stop and let me get close to them so I could behold there micro grandeur.