Hummingbirds in California: Everything You Need to Know

Hummingbirds are the favorite backyard bird of many, and for good reasons. Their magical colors and ability to hover in the air are almost majestic. While it is easy to think that all hummingbirds shimmer in iridescent colors and live in beautiful hidden forests, they live in different geographic ranges and have different nesting habits and diverse coloring.

Overview

According to the International Community of Ornithologists (ICO), there are 361 species of hummingbird, and 8 of them are found in California.

First, I want to focus on how to correctly identify these beautiful jewels using key factors such as their size and shape. We will study their behaviors, such as their diets and courting rituals, and where they are most commonly found to understand better how to ID each species.

Next, I want to cover the different species native to the state and discuss their various classes. We will learn their migration habits and determine the best seasons to spot them when they are not regularly visiting your backyard.

Lastly, I will discuss my favorite feeders to best attract California hummingbirds to your backyard and what native California plants are best to have in your yard to help attract hummingbirds year-round.

The 3 Classes of Hummingbird

Did you know there are three classes of hummingbirds? Hummingbirds are classified as residents, seasonal, or rare/accidental species in every state. I will start with the only resident or year-round hummingbird species in California, Anna’s Hummingbird. This species is a common bird in California, accounting for 40% of the checklists for the state.

Then you have the season species of hummingbirds. These hummingbirds would be the Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and the Rufous Hummingbirds, to name a few. These birds are migratory and only present in California during certain seasons of the year.

The last class of hummingbirds is the rare or accidental class. Hummingbirds like the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, you will only see on rare occasions when the species is lost and migrating outside of its typical migration path.

These are the 8 species of hummingbird in California:

  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Allen’s Hummingbird
  • Black-chinned Hummingbird
  • Costa’s Hummingbird
  • Rufous Hummingbird
  • Calliope Hummingbird
  • Broad-billed Hummingbird
  • Broad-tailed Hummingbird

1. Anna’s Hummingbird

@ Nicole Beaulac | Flickr

These bedazzled birds are among the most common hummingbirds along the Pacific Coast. A comparatively small bird, Anna’s are medium-sized and stocky by hummingbird standards. Their bills are relatively short, straight, and slender in build. They have predominantly green and gray bodies while their heads and throat areas twinkle with shades of red and pink.

  • Length: 3.9 in (10 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.2 oz (3-6 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.7 in (12 cm)

The male’s courting methods are just as dramatic in a display as their plumage. Male Anna’s will fly up to 130 feet in the air and then dive from the top of the climb almost vertically, ending with an explosive squeak made by their tail feathers. The overall dive lasts about 12 seconds before he makes a circular arc back near the point he began.

Where to Spot an Anna’s Hummingbird

First off, this beautiful species is easy to attract to the backyard; hummingbird feeders and flowering plants are great ways to lure in these flying ornaments. They are not the migrating type, so it is not uncommon for Anna’s to visit your feeder year-round.

When out birding, I recommend scouting colorful blossoms during the springtime, especially around eucalyptus trees and cultivated gardens. They are also common in parks, savannahs, and riverside woods. Listen for the male Anna’s and their scratchy song while looking up as they tend to be seen perched high above eye level at the tops of small trees singing loudly.

There are six different types of hummingbirds classified as seasonal; these are seen through California as a part of their migratory pattern or breeding. These are your Allen’s Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Costa’s Hummingbirds, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Calliope Hummingbirds, and Rufous Hummingbirds.

2. Allen’s Hummingbird

@ tdlucas5000 | Flickr

Allen’s Hummingbirds have more copper and green color tone. The adult males will have a copper-colored tail and belly while their back will be a bronze-green color. Their throat area, also called a gorget, has a deep reddish/orange color.

  • Length: 3.5 in (9 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.1 oz (2-4 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.3 in (11 cm)

The females and immature are also a bronze-green color; their sides will be a more pale copper tone. They both will display bronze spots around the throat, but females will show more spots and have small patches of red/orange in the middle of the throat area.

Allen’s are small and compact hummingbirds with a long straight bill. They are larger than the Calliope Hummingbird but slightly smaller than an Anna’s Hummingbird. They have very narrow wings and their tails extend beyond their wings when perched.

Where to Spot an Allen’s Hummingbird

Allen’s Hummingbirds are found along a narrow coastal area of forest, scrubs, and chaparral stretching from California to southern Oregon. Most Allen’s will migrate south by September, with only a few remaining in the Santa Barbara and Sidego areas all winter.

If you want to attract Allen’s Hummingbird to your backyard, try putting up a sugar-water feeder. Try using a ration of one part table sugar dissolved in four parts water. Another way is adding flowers to your backyard will also create additional beauty to your yard and entice these flying jewels for your viewing pleasure.

3. Black-chinned Hummingbird

@ Neal Simpson | Flickr

The Black-chinned Hummingbird has a more slender built frame and relatively straight black bill. Their bodies are a metallic green on the top side and dull grayish-white below. Males will have a black throat with a purple band at the base; females lack the band around their neck.

  • Length: 3.5 in (9 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.2 oz (2.3-4.9 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.3 in (11 cm)

They have a tongue with two grooves that help the Black-chinned Hummingbird during feeding. They will dart their tongues back and forth at about 13 to 17 licks per second.

Their diets consist mainly of nectar, small insects, and spiders, and during the colder months, they will eat up to three times their body weight in one day. And when nectar is scarce, they can survive on just insects alone.

Where to find a Black-chinned Hummingbird

These are one of the more adaptable hummingbirds. You can find them in urban areas amongst tall trees, flowering shrubs, and natural locations. Their nests are made of plant down and spider silk; they lay two very small eggs (0.6 in).

Unlike the other hummingbird species mentioned so far that are found along the coast, Black-chinned Hummingbirds are widespread in desert locations and mountainous forests.

Although the Black-chinned Hummingbirds are often perched high at the tops of dead or live trees, you can easily attract them to feeding stations.

Try mixing about one-quarter cup of sugar per cup of water. Change the water before it gets cloudy or discolored, as it can produce toxic alcohol.

4. Costa’s Hummingbird

@ Nathan Rupert | Flickr

Costa’s Hummingbirds are small hummingbirds with a “hunched” posture. They are compact with short tails and short wings, and their throat area has a flare that stretches out to the side of the neck.

  • Length: 3.5 in ( 7.6 – 8.8 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.1 oz (2-3 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.3 in (11 cm)

They are larger than the Calliope Hummingbird but smaller than an Anna’s Hummingbird. Adult male Costa’s have a beautiful royal purple crown, a gorget with a green back, and a faint green chest. Females and immature have a greenish top area, a white eyebrow stripe, and a white underside.

The Costa’s Hummingbirds diet comprises nectar from desert plant life such as chuparosa, ocotillo, and small flying insects. It is calculated that Costa’s Hummingbird will visit up to 1,840 flowers to meet its energy requirements for one day.

Where to find Costa’s Hummingbirds

You will find Costa Hummingbirds in the Southwestern regions of the United States. They are residents of Baja California and southwestern Arizona but will also migrate around the southern edges of Nevada and Utah. Costa’s Hummingbirds tend to build their nests low to the ground, around three to seven feet, in shrubs.

If you are hoping for a few visits to your backyard, add some flowers to your landscape. You can also try purchasing more than one hummingbird feeder. Costa’s are shy, and putting a feeder off to the side will allow them a chance to feed along larger or more aggressive species.

5. Rufous Hummingbird

@ Shelly Prevost | Flickr

Rufous Hummingbirds are one of the more aggressive hummingbirds in North America. They are relatively small with an almost straight, thin bill. Their wings are short, not reaching the end of their tails when perched, and their tails taper off to a point when folded.

  • Length: 2.8-3.5 in (7-9 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.2 oz (2-5 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.3 in (11 cm)

Male Rufous Hummingbirds have bright orange backs and bellies with vivid iridescent-red throats. The word “rufous” is a reddish-brown or rust color where the name originates. The females are green above and typically have an area of orange in the throat. They have rufous-washed flanks and rufous patches in their green tail.

While migrating, they are territorial and will tirelessly chase away other hummingbirds, even larger hummingbirds or resident ones. Like most hummingbirds, they feed on nectar, mostly from colorful tube-shaped flowers and small insects such as gnats, midges, and flies.

Where to spot Rufous Hummingbirds

For their size, Rufous Hummingbirds are one of the longest migrating birds, traveling up to 4000 miles each way. They spend much of the year on the move, breeding in Northwestern Alaska and migrating to Mexico and the Gulf Coast during the winter.

They will migrate along the Pacific coast and to the Rocky Mountains during the late summer and fall during the springtime. You will see Rufous Hummingbirds in open areas, parks, yards, and forests during breeding time. Rufous Hummingbirds build their nests high up in trees, and they lay between 2-3 tiny white eggs.

6. Calliope Hummingbird

@ Tom Benson | Flickr

Calliope Hummingbirds are the smallest native birds in the United States. They have short tails and short wings that barely extend beyond their tails, and their bills are thin and relatively short by hummingbird standards.

  • Length: 3.1-3.5 in (8-9 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.1 oz (2.3-3.4 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.1-4.3 in (10.5-11 cm)

The male has a beautiful magenta gorget that contrasts their white and greenish vests, while the female and immatures lack the gorget and have a peach-like wash across their underside. Both the male and female have glossy greenish backs.

Calliope Hummingbirds typically forage low to the ground and will defend their breeding territory. Their feeding habits are typical of hummingbirds consisting of nectar and small flying insects.

Where to spot Calliope Hummingbirds

As small as the Calliope Hummingbird is, it travels more than 5,000 miles every year, breeding in the open forests and meadows of the Northwestern mountains to pine-oak forests in Mexico and back again. They are the smallest long-distance migrant in the world. They are also very territorial and will chase birds as large as the Red-tailed Hawks during the breeding season.

The nests of a Calliope Hummingbird are usually on evergreen trees. They will sometimes reuse their nests or build on an old nest. You can try luring them in with a sugar-water feeder and adding flowers to your yard.

7. Broad-billed Hummingbird

@ Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Broad-billed Hummingbirds made the list but are rare in California. They have long, bright reddish-colored bills with black tips, and their tails are notched in the center.

  • Length: 3.1-3.9 in (8-10 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.1 oz (3-4 g)
  • Wingspan: 5.1 in (13 cm)

The male adult Broad-bill is a beautiful metallic green with a more dull color on the crown and forehead and a shimmering blue gorget. Females are a golden-green back and a gray underside, and they have a white line just behind the eye. The male’s courtship is displayed by hovering about a foot from the female and then flying back and forth in an arc shape.

Where to find Broad-billed Hummingbirds

The Broad-billed Hummingbird is a resident all year in central Mexico, but they migrate north into the mountain Canyons of southern New Mexico and Arizona during breeding.

When birding, try visiting a flower garden with hummingbird feeders. In wilder environments, you will need to visit flower patches rich in sycamores, cottonwoods, and willows at high elevational ranges.

8. Broad-tailed Hummingbird

@ Carla Kishinami | Flickr

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a medium-sized hummingbird. They are larger than a Calliope but slightly smaller than a Rufous Hummingbird, and they have slimmer bodies and a long straight bill. They have relatively long tails that extend beyond the wingtips when perched by hummingbird standards.

  • Length: 3.1-3.5 in (8-9 cm)
  • Weight: 0.1-0.2 oz (2.8-4.5 g)
  • Wingspan: 5.25 in (13 cm)

Male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are iridescent green in color on their backs. Their undersides are white, and they have a gorgeous rose-magenta gorget. Females have green spots on their throats and cheeks. You can see a white tail tip when they spread their tails during flight.

Where to find Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

Due to the colder weather at higher elevations, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds can significantly slow their heart rates and drop their body temperatures.

They breed in high meadows and open woodlands between 5,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation from May-August. They will then migrate to southern Mexico for the winter, where they will forage in pine-oak forests, dry thorn forests, and the tropical highlands.

Their nests are usually built on evergreen or aspen branches from 1 to 5 feet above the ground, typically laying 1-2 eggs.

How to Attract Hummingbirds in California to Your Backyard

Hummingbirds are a beautiful and fascinating species; it’s no wonder people want to lure them to their backyard. Here are a few tips for proper placement and care of your feeders.

  • Provide cover and shelter: Hummingbirds burn massive amounts of energy during flight. Place your feeders in open spaces within 10 to 12 feet of cover, such as shrubs. These will offer hummingbirds a safe place to rest their wings.
  • Provide more hummingbird feeders: Hummingbirds are very territorial and do not like to share “their” feeders. Try hanging multiple feeders “out-of-site” of each other to create distance and discourage fighting.
  • Plant native food sources: Try planting early and late blooming flowers to attract hummingbirds throughout the season—plants like fuchsias, columbine, foxgloves, and bee balms.
  • Clean and change hummingbird nectar regularly: Nectar does spoil. Change and clean your feeder every 1 to 2 days during the hot summer months (above 90°) and less often during cooler temperatures.
  • Do not use pesticides and herbicides: Many of these could be toxic to birds. Use feeders that provide a natural solution to detour ants and other insects.
  • Provide running water: Use a water feature such as a birdbath fountain or a stream. These help keep their feathers in good condition by washing away any sticky nectar residue on their wings. Again, make sure the water is clean and not stagnant.
  • Make a clear line of sight for birdwatching: Assuming you’ve met the requirements above, position your feeders with a clear view for stunning photography and observation.
@ tdlucas5000 | Flickr

Best Feeders to Attract Hummingbirds in California

The best hummingbird feeders will provide functionality over form. Hummingbird nectar will spoil, and feeders must be cleaned regularly and thoroughly. Look for feeders that can easily be taken apart

Avoid narrow-necked bottle feeders and odd shapes or saucers with small filling holes as they are difficult to clean. Ceramic feeders may look attractive but will prevent you from seeing nectar levels and mold build-up.

Native California Plants for Hummingbirds

Most hummingbirds are attracted to trumpet or tubular-shaped flowers, especially red-colored ones. Try planting early and late blooming flowers throughout the season to attract hummingbirds year around.

  • Western columbine
  • Manzanita
  • Scarlet bugler
  • Desert-willow
  • California thistle
  • Flowering maple
  • Scarlet Larkspur
  • Sticky monkeyflower
  • Showy milkweed
  • California fuchsia
  • Climbing penstemon
  • California honeysuckle
  • Hummingbird Monardella
  • Salvia
  • Red Yucca

How to Identify Birds in California

There are 4 key distinctions that you can use to take some of the stress away from identification and quickly get you to the right group of species. Using the four keys to bird identification, you can learn and build on those skills.

  1. Size and Shape: The combination of size and shape is a powerful tool for identifying birds. Bird sizes can be classified as small, medium, and large. For reference, a small bird is about the size of a sparrow, a pigeon is noted as a medium-sized bird, while a goose would be considered a large bird. Take note of the silhouette, and jot down or draw out an outline. Pay attention to the tail length, bill shape, and overall body shape.
  2. Color Pattern: When trying to make an ID, start with overall color patterns. Look for bold markings on prominent areas such as the head, back, belly, and wings instead of trying to remember every detail. Look for patterns such as banding and spots. Remember, a bird’s appearance can change if it is older or younger or has recently molted.
  3. Behavior: Aside from various distinctive physical features, birds are also unique in how they act, move, sit and fly. Are they on the ground or high up in the treetops? You can use the behavior of a bird even at a distance. Spend time watching them, even the more common birds; observe them for as long as they will allow you.
  4. Habitat: When out birding, keep your habitat in mind. I refer to habitats as the collections of plantlife: grassland, cypress swamp, pine woods, and deciduous forest. By narrowing down the habitat, you have instantly narrowed down the probability of the types of birds you will see.