Hummingbird Colors

Anna's Hummer

A male Anna’s hummingbird displays his ruby red gorget in flight. Look closely on the left side though and you will see a bit of orange color where light is reflecting differently.

My best efforts were being thwarted by a tiny critter that weighs not much more than a dime. I had set up a hummingbird feeder at our campsite at Burro Creek near Wikiup, Arizona in hopes of attracting a few hummers and it worked perfectly. Several Anna’s hummingbirds, a couple males and at least one female, found it almost immediately. I believe that a single male though eventually staked it out as his territory.

My objective was to get some photographs of the little guy in flight and in full color. I was using my new high end Nikon mirrorless camera and a 600mm lens with a 1.4x doubler, giving me an effective 840mm lens. I jacked up the ISO so I could shoot at around 1/2000th of a second and set the camera to 20 frames per second. I was ready.

And I started getting decent photos almost right away. However, what I wasn’t getting were photos where the gorget, that beautiful red cape around the male Anna’s neck and head, was in display. It was coming out nearly black in my images. After many hours over two days, and around 2500 images, I was finally able to capture the full color of this wonderful creature.

The gorget of a hummingbird male is like adding icing to the icing of a multi-layered cake. John James Audubon described the rufous hummingbird male this way in Birds of North America: “. . . like a breathing gem, or magic carbuncle of glowing fire, stretching out its gorgeous ruff, as if to emulate the sun itself in splendour . . .”

Before I can proceed, I must digress here for a moment. Birds may see colors in a totally different light from humans. We have three different cones in our eyes for seeing red, green, and blue. Birds have a fourth cone which allows them to see into the ultraviolet range. Imagine the possibilities. For instance, we mix red and blue to get purple. Can birds mix red and blue with ultraviolet to yield a combination we can’t even imagine? How many more combinations can they see that we cannot?

So, while we see the gorget and think it fantastic, what does it really look like to another hummingbird? There is something unique about the way the gorget shows color as well. It does not contain pigments, like those found in fruits, dyes, and paint, which absorb or reflect light. Rather, the color comes from the structure of the tiniest filaments of the feathers. Microscopic air bubbles, which look like tiny mountain ranges under a microscope, bend and refract light depending on the angle of the light to the particles.

From there, it is all about angles. At some angles, as I found, the gorget simply appears black as different wavelengths cancel each other out or light simply isn’t reflected by the feather. However, at other angles, the wavelengths combine and light reflects beautifully, creating the splendidly brilliant colors of the gorget. The birds seem very aware of their gorgets and flash them by tiny adjustments to the angles of the feathers.

There are over 350 species of hummingbirds in the world, all in the Americas. All of them are colorful in the extreme, having developed this visual communication rather than song, perhaps 54 million years ago as territorial defense and as a result of sexual selection. To them, color is critical and the gorget serves as a semaphore announcing through its flashing color that there is a male present. For females, the brightest gorgets signify the fittest males for breeding. To other males, it is a warning that intruders will be dealt with.

I doubt that I had much to do with getting the hummer to show me his stuff. I suspect that in the end, he was trying to ward off a competitor and I just happened to be there to document it. That’s okay, I’ll take what I can get.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho