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While this bird's common name, "black-chinned hummingbird," is simple enough not to need an etymological (word origin) explanation, its scientific name, Archilochus alexandri, does not share the same fate. Three dictionaries of bird names provide three distinct etymologies. One states that the generic name, Archilochus, honors a 6th century B. C. Thracian poet who was famous for his "savage wit and flaunting of conventions." A second traces the name to the Greek "first among birds" from "arch" meaning "chief'" and "lochos" meaning "body of people." A third translates Archilochus to "chief brigand" from archos (chief or first in importance) and lochos (ambush or a company of men). The third dictionary ends the definition with a simple question: "But why? Because the bird steals the pollen from the flower and dashes away?" In all three cases, the word alexandri refers to a Dr. Alexandre, who discovered the species in the Sierra Madre of Mexico and sent it to Mexico City. One assumes he has a first name, but none has made its way down through the ages.
The black-chinned hummingbird measures about three and one-half inches long with a three and three-quarter-inch wing span. It weighs three to three and one-half grams, which is about equivalent to the weight of a dime plus a dollar bill. The male is dull metallic green above and gray below. He has a black chin and upper throat with a violet, iridescent lower throat which is known as a gorget (pronounced gore-jet). A white upper breast looks like a collar against the gorget. The female lacks the characteristic coloring on the chin and upper throat and lower throat.
Black-chins breed from southern British Columbia to Mexico. They winter in Mexico. Black-chins arrive in Canada in late May, following their migration out of Mexico. They begin returning to Mexico in late June. Most are gone from southern British Columbia by the end of July. They are abundant in southern Arizona throughout summer.
Predator and Prey
Due to its high sugar content, which fuels the bird’s extreme metabolism, nectar serves as the main food source. These hummingbirds feed on over 90 species of plants, with penstemon, agave, larkspur and desert-honeysuckle the most important. In recent years, artificial feeders have begun to supplement their normal diet. They also prey on insects and spiders, particularly when females are laying eggs and feeding their young. They get most of their water from nectar.
Red flowers are generally the most commonly visited ones although tubular-shaped corollas, regardless of color, may be just as important an attractant. Others hypothesize that black-chins choose red and orange flowers because fewer insects visit them.
Sporadic reports of predation include greater roadrunners, brown-crested flycatchers and Mexican jays nabbing flying black-chins. Snakes eat eggs and fletchlings. One napping mountain lion at the Sonora Desert Museum "promptly snatched and swallowed" a black-chinned hummingbird that hovered too close.
Habits and Habitat
Describing hummingbird flight requires a thoroughly aeronautic vocabulary. Their unique skeletal structure allows them to fly forwards, backwards, sideways, and on their backs. Hummers can hover, take off vertically and pivot on a stationary axis. In black-chins, this requires a wing beat frequency of 50 beats per second. The smaller the bird, the faster the rate. It also requires massive muscles that make up a third of their two- to three-gram body weight.
Black-chinned hummingbirds perform an elaborate courtship display during breeding season. A male executes a series of U-shaped swoops where he passes close to the female at the bottom of his arc. During the pendulum-like flight, his wings make a whirling or whistling sound. After mating, the female builds a minute nest woven from the webs of spiders, down from plant seeds and hairs of hirsute leaves. Nests are built low in a canopy and upright on any structure from a limb to a telephone wire.
In 1896, F. A. Merriam described the nest building. "The peculiar feature of the building was the quivering motion of the bird in moulding. When the material was placed she moulded the nest like a potter, twirling tremulously around against the sides, sometimes pressing so hard she ruffled up the feathers of her breast." Nests are cup shaped with a diameter of about one and one-half inches. Clutch is usually two white elliptical one-half-inch-long eggs. Incubation lasts about two weeks.
Black-chins generally prefer canyon or flood-plain riparian habitat, but they also venture into orchards, pinyon-juniper and Gambel’s oak woodlands. In Arizona, they are found in relatively open areas with Arizona sycamore and Fremont cottonwood. Black-chins have adapted well to urban settings, as long as water, numerous flowering shrubs and vines, and tall trees are nearby.
Eighteen species of hummingbird occur in the United States, with 15 of those visiting Arizona either regularly or rarely. They are limited to the new world and were first described in 1558 by French explorers in Brazil.
An early description by Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish friar entrusted by his superiors with the task of chronicling the antiquities, peoples, nature and scenery of "New Spain" (Mexico), stated that during the winter the birds stick their bills in branches and die, but revive in spring clothed in bright new plumages "with the greening of the vegetation."
American bird artist, John James Audubon, called hummingbirds "glittering garments of the rainbow."
In 1775, George Louis Leclerc wrote in L’histoire Naturelle "...of all animated beings, this is the most elegant in form and brilliant in colour. The stones and metals polished by art are not comparable to this gem of nature."
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