A new genus for Calliope Hummingbird, the ‘little star’
Hummingbirds are one of the joys of wintertime birding here in Louisiana. My friend Erik Johnson and I recently visited the home of Dr. Jeff Harris — a birder and research entomologist — who has up to six different species visiting his feeders each day this season.
One of the highlights the morning of our visit was an immature male Calliope Hummingbird (“Stellula” calliope), whose gorget feathers have started to grow in. (Photo © David J. Ringer)
Calliope Hummingbirds are marvelous little birds — the smallest in the United States and Canada at just over three inches in length. Adult males sport extravagant gorgets, and speckle-throated females are beautiful in their way.
For many years, the American Ornithologists’ Union checklist has placed the tiny Calliope Hummingbird alone in its own genus, Stellula, which means little star, a fitting and marvelous name. Some authors (e.g., Howell and Webb 1995) have also placed it in an expanded Archilochus, though on what basis I’m not entirely sure.
But the Calliope Hummingbird is embedded within Selasphorus — the genus containing Rufous Hummingbird, among others — as shown most recently and clearly in a 2008 paper, A higher-level taxonomy for hummingbirds (PDF).
A pending proposal before the AOU North American Classification Committee (2011-A-2 – PDF) will result in a formal change to the list this coming July, if passed, which I think is very likely.
And so the wonderful little Calliope Hummingbird will become a Selasphorus — a flame-bearer, another enchanting name — but will anyone object if I always secretly think of it as a little star?
Here are a couple of Calliope relatives:
Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, also photographed in Jeff Harris’s yard. © David J. Ringer
Volcano Hummingbird, Selasphorus flammula, in Costa Rica © David J. Ringer. The bee-like Volcano Hummingbird is one of three extremely tiny Central American species in the genus.