Jewels of the Sky: Hummingbirds of Western Montana

Hummingbirds are stunning creatures: not only for their jewel-like beauty and gravity-defying aerial acrobatics but also for their sheer fortitude. Every fall, they migrate thousands of miles to Mexico or Central America. Their wings thrum at up to 80 beats per second. When they sleep, their body drops into a state of torpor: their heartbeat and breathing slow to a state almost near death. Yet when they awake, their first order of business is hovering about trees and blossoms, hunting for nectar and insects. Few birds are so full of life and energy.

Western Montana is home to three species of hummingbird: rufous, calliope, and black-chinned. Rufous hummingbirds, as their name implies, can be easily recognized from the lovely red-gold coloration of their bodies. Calliope and black-chinned hummingbirds both appear green from a distance, but up close, males can be told apart by the colorful feathers on the lower part of their neck. Calliope males have a finely streaked bib that appears black in the shade, but brilliant pink in the sunlight. Black-chinned hummingbirds have a solid-colored dark throat that appears purplish in sunlight. Females of any species can be very difficult to tell apart, since they tend to have pale bellies and throats absent of the telltale iridescent feathers of the males. Rufous hummingbird females might be a little easier to pick out, with streaks of warm copper-colored feathers on their back and wings. Calliope females have a peachy wash on their underside, and black-chinned females sometimes show white tips at the ends of their outer tailfeathers.

Often, you need to get close to tell the differences. A hummingbird feeder can do just the trick. There’s a lot of conflicting information about what is best to feed them, but a mixture of four parts water, one part sugar, heated to boiling, mixed, and cooled, is usually the best recipe. Red dye is unnecessary; the bright, flower-shaped feeders themselves do a good job of drawing the birds in, and the effect of dye on hummingbird health can be potentially harmful.


Hummingbirds can be found in shrubby woodland habitat. These three species will stay in Montana through the summer, raising their tiny nestlings in tightly-woven nests built among branches. Males often perch at the top of dead branches and sometimes even on power lines to watch over and defend their territory. They will guard their home turf fiercely, chasing away rivals and even much larger predators. Some have even been known to dive-bomb red-tailed hawks.

In addition to the buzzing sound produced by their lightning-fast wingbeats, hummingbirds can be very vocal. During courtship, male calliope hummingbirds perform display dives, emitting a high-pitched “zing” noise. Appropriate to their impressive repertoire of sounds, calliope hummingbirds are actually named for the Greek muse of eloquence and epic poetry.


Hummingbirds are attracted to shrubs that flower and produce nectar, their main source of sustenance. Their eyes are highly attuned to color, especially red and orange hues. Bright blooms such as columbine, lupine, larkspur, daylilies, bee balm, petunias, summer phlox, and scarlet sage get their attention easily.

Montana’s hummingbirds will head more than 5,000 miles south when colder weather approaches in September and October. Until then, they’ll stay put, enjoying the same summer blossoms and mountain woodlands that Montanans love best.

 By Jackie Bussjaeger

Editor, This is Montana


Top photo: A male rufous hummingbird visits a feeder near the Lochsa River, just over the Idaho border. 

Middle: A female hummingbird incubates eggs, which are about the size of a coffee bean.

Bottom: A male calliope hummingbird at Council Grove State Park near Missoula. 

All photos by Jackie Bussjaeger.