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Sunday, June 22, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Washington Hosts Four Species Of Hummingbirds

Seattle Times Columnist

Washington state boasts four species of hummingbird. (There are 340 species in the world, all in the Western Hemisphere.) The four in this state are the rufous (Sophie's growler) and Anna's, in Western Washington, and calliope and black-chinned, in Eastern Washington.

Calliope, the smallest bird in the United States or Canada, is a mere 3 1/4 inches long from tip of beak to tip of tail. Still, it is a giant compared with the bee hummingbird of Cuba. Lighter than a dime, the Cuban bird measures only 2 1/4 inches. It is the life's ambition of this writer to see one.

Anna's hummingbird, 4 inches long, is a relatively recent arrival from California. It is the only hummingbird that lives here year round, and its presence may be proof that ornamental gardens can provide serious hummingbird habitat.

The three native hummingbirds are migratory. For example, the rufous (a mere 3 3/4 inches long, as is the black-chinned) travels some 3,000 miles to Mexico, where it spends most of the year enjoying the balmy weather. Its stay here is confined to the breeding season.

The hummingbirds arrive in late winter ready to get down to business. After a short, spectacular courtship by the male, birds mate and part. The female selects a nesting site on the branch of a tree or shrub, and using downy plant fluff and spider webs, she weaves a fairy cup the size of a walnut shell. She camouflages the outside with bits of lichen or leaf, then lays one or two white eggs, each no bigger than a bean. The hatchlings look like pink honeybees, but they grow quickly and the nest stretches to accommodate them. The female may lay two clutches a season, then heads home to Mexico, leaving the youngsters to make the trip on instinct alone.

Spotting a hummingbird nest is usually a matter of luck. North Beach residents Mary Lentz and Kelly Murphy recently glanced down from their living room window and spotted one in a bush below. (Alas, before they could finish knitting baby booties and a cap for the occupant of the single egg, they found the nest blown to the ground and the egg tossed aside. Murphy painstakingly sewed the nest back to the branch and replaced the somewhat wizened egg, but to no avail. The female abandoned the nest.) However, careful observation can help you spot a nest, too. If you see a hummingbird make repeated trips into a shrub or bush, it may be a female visiting her nest. Don't touch the nest, or disturb the site, but experts agree that a few, discreet human visits to a nest won't cause a hummingbird to abandon it. Hummingbirds don't appear to use the same nest year after year - though they may return to the same immediate area - so you may take down the nest and keep it at the end of the summer. If you don't swoon with delight at this prospect, call me. I'll take the nest.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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