The rich metallic green of his gorget and the royal purple of his crown are fitting adornments for the Magnificent Hummingbird. The French naturalist Lesson called the bird Rivoli’s Hummingbird, in honor of the early 19th century Duke of Rivoli, Victor Massena.
In Arizona, the bird is a rare, but regular winter visitor to feeders in Portal, and Madera and Ramsey canyons. In the summer, it is a common bird in southern Arizona and New Mexico’s riparian woodlands where sycamores and maples thrive, open hillsides of pine-oak forests, mixed coniferous forests in the higher mountains and in the cloud forests of Central America. It prefers an altitude of 5,000 to 9,000 feet. You frequently find the Magnificent near forest edges, or in thinned woods perching low in shrubs mixed in with the trees. In the Chiricahuas, the bird inhabits the more open parts of the Ponderosa pine forest, especially where fire has killed some trees, allowing the penstemons and honeysuckles to grow and provide nectar.
The Magnificent is large---5 inches long with a wingspread of 7 inches. The outstanding American ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent called it the largest hummingbird in North America, but it is slightly lighter than the Blue-throated hummingbird. To the eye, they look about the same size. From a distance, it can appear to be black. Closer up and in the sun, the male flashes his emerald green throat and violet crown. He has a staring white spot behind his eye. His breast and upper belly are glossy black; his back a bronze green and his lower belly a dull brown. His tail is black and slightly forked. The large female is like the female Blue-throat at a casual glance. Both are greenish above and darker below. The lady Magnificent is more mottled, has a heavily spotted throat, and the white patches on her squared tail are smaller and less distinct.
For vocalizations, the Magnificent offers two selections: a distinctive twitter— louder and not as shrill as the Anna’s; and a sharp thin chip call like that of a phoebe. Its wings beat slowly enough to be seen and make a soft sound unlike the buzz of smaller hummers. F.H. Fowler wrote the following about the bird’s flight in 1903:
“Its motions are unlike any other hummer I have ever seen as its wings did not hum in the manner that has given this family its name, but cut the air with strong, firm, wing beats. Its flight was erratic, like that of the hummingbird moth, at times like that of a bat, It would even soar, or sail for a few feet. It was not very shy, but when it made up its mind to go it would flit away on an erratic course without the slightest warning.”
The Magnificent has a large mostly Central American range. It breeds as far north as the sky islands of southern Arizona, and as far south as the volcanic western slopes of Panama through the tablelands of Guatemala and Mexico. The most northern winter territory is the in Sierra Madre in Mexico. Boulder County, Colorado has one nesting record. It summers in the northern and western mountains of New Mexico, and the Chisos Mountains of Texas. The farther south you go, the less migratory these birds are, although they may move to a lower elevation in the non-breeding season in southern Mexico and points south.
The Magnificent dines on flower nectar and copious amounts of insects. It also visits feeders with regularity. The flowers of agaves are rich in insect life. Of the bird in the Huachuca Mountains, Otho C. Poling writes in 1890:
“It arrives in May, but is nowhere plentiful until the mescal (agave) shrubs begin to blossom, about the middle of June. From this time on during the entire summer one may observe on almost any hillside below the pine belt large clusters of bright red or yellow flowers spreading out from stalks ten or fifteen feet high. There are many varieties of the plant and all are favorite feeding resorts of the Rivoli Hummer... It is necessary to select a well-matured plant, and at the proper elevation, as well as in good surroundings of spruce pines. While feeding, these birds range from 4,500 to 8,000 feet altitude or up to the pine belt, their favorite grounds being where the pines end on the downward slope.”
In 1957, Marshall observed the birds capturing insects near sycamores and Apache pines. It snaps insects out of the air on the wing or hovers among the leaves of trees or needles of pines to catch them. Although the bird prefers riparian woodlands, he found it quite far from water, and when necessary, independent of nectar sources. It also forages on penstemons, irises, planted scarlet geraniums, honeysuckles, and scarlet salvias.
In Arizona, the Magnificent nests from early May to late July. The upright cup of a nest is usually saddled on small horizontal branches of alders, walnuts, pines, maples or sycamores, fairly high up - from 20 to 55 feet. It measures about 2-1/4 inch outside diameter and total depth, and about 1-1/8 inch wide. Henshaw reported the first nest in 1875 as follows:
“It is composed of mosses nicely woven into an almost circular cup, the interior possessing a lining of the softest and downiest feathers, while the exterior is elaborately covered with lichens, which are securely bound on by a network of the finest silk from spiders’ webs. It was saddled on the horizontal limb of an alder, about twenty feet above the bed of a running mountain stream, in a glen which was overarched and shadowed by several huge spruces, making it one of the most shady and retired little nooks that could be imagined.”
Like many hummingbirds, the Magnificent is a pugnacious creature around feeding territories. In Portal, we watched one fly in and knock a Blue-throat off its perch in a pine near a feeder. Both birds screamed off, so fast that it was hard to follow them with your eye, rising higher and higher to do battle. Finally one fled, zigzagging through the trees, the other still in hot pursuit when we lost sight of them. In a study in Oaxaca, the best feeding territories were dominated by a combination of the Magnificent and the Blue-throat. The Magnificent displaced the Blue-throat in the open meadow areas, but not in the edges of the meadow and the forest, or in open forest areas.
The Magnificent Hummingbird is one of the most beautiful of hummers that come to our part of the world. It is a common bird during breeding season in the mountains and canyons of southern Arizona. Even though we’ve seen them numerous times, it is always a thrill to see bird royalty like this!