Chuparosa – the Hummingbird Bush

Chuparosa, Justicia californica, (aka Beloperone) is a perennial plant native to Southeastern California and the Sonoran Desert including Arizona and Sonora and Baja California, Mexico. It is a favorite of hummingbirds which go after the nectar. Other birds go after the sugar-rich center of the flower and seeds. The fruit are elongated, club-shaped capsules about one-half inch long which contain four seeds in the inflated tip.


Chuparosa is a shrub that can grow three- to five feet high and six- to eight feet wide. It is usually found in dry washes and on rocky slopes below elevations of 2,500 feet. The shrub is usually grayish green with hairy branches. Plants initially have succulent oval leaves, up to one inch long, that give way to bright red (and sometimes orange or yellow) flowers. The flowers, up to two inches long, are tubular and grow in clusters at the end of stems. The flowers have a large “lower lip” that opens to reveal a white anther which contains the pollen. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), Chuparosa flowers can be found any month of the year, except during drought or right after freezes. Big blooms often occur in the winter and early spring months.

According to DesertUSA, “This member of the large, tropical Acanthus family (Acanthaceae) is the only New World genus that extends north into the US. The common name chuparosa, “sucking rose” in Spanish, is abundant with nectar, making it popular among various birds, especially hummingbirds. Quail and house finches eat the seeds. Known locally as honeysuckle, chuparosa is said to have been eaten by the Papago Indians.” Chuparosa is browsed by livestock and deer.

Chuparosas are very drought tolerant and often cultivated as a landscape ornamental in desert regions for its bright flowers and to attract birds. ASDM has a plant care guide for chuparosa here and notes that they can survive quick dips in temperature to 22°F.

See more photos here.

More Little Gray Birds – Verdins

Previously I wrote about little gray birds, Gnatcatchers, taking over a new hummingbird feeder in my yard. The saga continues with another little gray bird at the feeder: Verdins (Auriparus flaviceps).



Verdins are 3.5 to 4.5 inches long. The adults, both male and female, have a gray back, white underparts, a yellow head and throat, and a reddish patch at the shoulder of the wings. Immature Verdins are light-gray throughout.

Verdin range mapAccording to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), the Verdin is “among the most characteristic birds of the desert, and it has one notable distinction: it is not closely related to any other bird in the western hemisphere. For a while it was placed, uneasily, in the same family as the chickadees, which it resembles in size and in hyperactive behavior. Scientists now believe that its closest relatives are several species of small, plain birds found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.”

ASDM: Verdins are “Most common in the Sonoran Desert and mesquite bosques at lower elevations; also common in many southwestern urban areas. Verdins move and behave much like chickadees, flitting about singly or in pairs in search of food, often hanging upsides down to reach the underside of leaves. They are generally tolerant of people except during the nesting season. The diet consists mainly of insects but small spiders, berries, small fruits, and sometimes seeds are also taken. This bird also drinks nectar and sugar water, as people that have hummingbird feeders hung out know all too well.” Yes we do.

“The male may build several bulky twig nests before the female chooses one in which to lay her three to six pale green, red-brown dotted eggs. These large oval or spherical nests are placed rather far out on branches and may last many years in the dry desert environment. The entrance to the nest often faces prevailing winds, possibly an adaptation to the high temperatures of their desert habitat. Incubation takes about 10 days and the young are ready to leave the nest about 21 days after hatching, although they return to the nest at night.”

The nests are generally spherical with an entrance low on the side. They build one nest as the nursery and another for resting. This is much like cactus wrens which also build multiple nests.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Roosting nests are much smaller than breeding nests. “The outer stick shell is constructed mostly by the male, while the female does most of the lining. The Verdin’s roosting nests help it stay warm in winter. Winter roosting nests have thicker insulation, and may reduce energy requirements for thermoregulation by as much as 50 percent. The Verdin builds roosting nests all year round. One pair of Verdins in Arizona was observed building 11 nests in one year.”

Verdins are hardy and adaptable. You may see them active on the hottest summer days and the coldest winter mornings.

Verdins have a distinctive loud, rapid whistle which you can hear from a Cornell recording here.

See more photos from Google Images here.

This article was originally published in the Arizona Daily Independent.

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Way of the Hummingbird

Cactus Wren

The Way of the Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are ferocious. The males jealously guard feeders and flowers. Females guard nesting sites. I’ve seen one male literally drive another into the ground and jab him with his sharp beak. They have a variety of vocalizations including a “war cry,” a buzzing to warn others away. The Rufous is particularly pugnacious.


For two years, I was involved with the hummingbird reconciliation project run by the University of Arizona. My job was to identify hummers, observe and record their behavior at the feeders in my yard. Over that time I was able to recognize individual birds of the same species, since each has a slight variation from the ideal pictured in a bird book. (And there are fertile hybrids between Anna’s and Costa’s just to make things interesting.) Hummers have good memories. They can return to a feeder year after year.

Hummingbirds live on the edge. Their small size and ability to fly forwards, backwards, upside down, and hover, requires a racing metabolism. At rest, their hearts beat 500 times per minute and this increases to over 1,200 beats per minute during flight. Their wings beat 80 times per second; body temperature is 105- to 109 degrees F.

To function, a hummingbird must consume 70% of its body weight in solid food per day (8-12 calories) and 4- to 8 times its body weight in water. They consume flower nectar (and sugar water), insects, and spiders, as well as tree sap in some areas. They can completely digest sucrose within 20 minutes. According to the Peterson Field Guide, “Despite the predominance of certain hues in hummingbird pollinated flowers, color is far less important… than the quantity and quality of the nectar. When presented with a variety of flowers, hummingbirds will maximize their energy intake by selecting for highest nectar output and richest concentration of sugars, regardless of flower shape or color. Taste also ranks above flower color…” Hummers prefer sucrose over other sugars such as glucose and fructose.

To take in the oxygen they need to burn food, hummers respire at the rate of 300 breaths per minute, even at rest. An excited hummer can breathe twice as fast. Hummers, which are the smallest warm-blooded vertebrates, have the largest heart-to-body ratio of any warm-blooded vertebrate, and the largest brain-to-body ratio of any bird.

They need that relatively big brain for their split-second aerial maneuvering. Hummers are the only birds that gain lift from both the downstroke and up stroke of their wings. The wing motion describes a horizontal figure eight. After the downstroke, the wing is turned over at the shoulder so that the up stroke becomes another downstroke.

There are over 300 species, all in the western hemisphere, and they range from the tip of South America to Alaska. There are 17 species native to the Sonoran Desert Region. Hummers in our region range in length from 2.75 inches to 5.25 inches and weigh 2 to 10 grams (0.07 to 0.35 ounces). Only one hummingbird, the ruby throat, occurs east of the Mississippi River in the U.S.

Most hummers in our region exhibit some migratory behavior. The champion is the Rufous which travels from Mexico to Alaska and back every year. Second is the Ruby Throat which migrates from the eastern U.S. to Mexico. Some travel along the coast, but others take a 13-hour, non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Those long-distance flyers try to double their body weight for fuel before the trip. Normal flight speed is 25- to 30 mph, but they can do bursts of 60 mph if necessary.

Hummingbirds are very territorial; both sexes protect feeding territories; males protect courtship territories; and females protect nesting territories. Hummers are promiscuous breeders. The male merely courts and mates with receptive females. The female may mate with several males, but she alone builds the nest, lays and incubates the eggs, and tends the young.

The nest is about two inches in diameter. The female uses plant fiber and moss bound with spider web silk. The nest may be lined with hair or feathers and decorated with leaves, bark strips, or lichens to help camouflage it. Generally, two raisin-sized eggs are laid and incubated for about two weeks. Young fledge in about three weeks after hatching.


Hummingbirds are colorful. Most of that color is not produced by pigments as in other birds, but by refraction of light by the feathers. The feathers contain filmy layers that hold granules of melanin and air bubbles, which refract light differently depending on the angle of impingement. The bubbles act as tiny prisms, breaking the light into its component colors.

Where do they go at night, especially in the winter? Hummers are often perilously close to the limits of their energy reserves. On cold nights, when the costs of keeping warm are especially high, it may be too risky for a hummer to maintain its high metabolism. In that case, it will seek shelter of a branch or crevasse, bristle its feathers to let body heat escape, and allow its body temperature to approach that of its surroundings. Its heart rate drops dramatically, and it may stop breathing for minutes at a time. It appears lifeless, clinging motionlessly to its branch with its head drawn close to its body and its bill pointing sharply upward. At daybreak it revs its metabolism and warms itself again. This temporary hibernation is called torpor. Hummingbirds become torpid not only to deal with fuel crises, but also to save energy for migration. And since birds lose moisture with every breath, becoming torpid also helps desert hummers conserve water.

Like many animals in the wild, most hummers don’t survive the first year, but those that do have a life expectancy of three to four years. Some tagged birds in Colorado are known to be 12 years old. One hummer at the Desert Museum was claimed to be 18 years old at death.

If you set up feeders, use 1 part sugar in 4 parts water in the winter, and 1 part sugar in 5 parts water in the summer. Clean the feeders before each filling. Do not use coloring, honey, or artificial sweeteners.

If you want to learn to identify hummingbirds, I recommend “Hummingbirds of North America” a Peterson Field Guide by Sheri L. Williamson. This book contains photos rather than drawings. Photos include close-ups of heads and tails which aid identification. The book also has a good discussion of natural history and good range maps. It covers 31 species. With practice, you can even learn to identify some hummers by their vocalizations. Some species (usually only the males) also have distinctive “hum” of the wing beats.