When birdwatchers travel to the southwestern United States in late summer, hummingbirds usually rank high on their “want lists.” One of the most sought after is the uncommon and enigmatic Lucifer Hummingbird. Although it occurs annually in three states, its status is poorly understood.
Originally known from central Mexico, the Lucifer Hummingbird was first detected in 1901 in arid country of what is now Big Bend National Park of western Texas. This is still the bird’s major stronghold north of the border. Experts have estimated the summer population there at about 50 breeding females and presumably a comparable number of males. (In discussing hummingbird populations, we don’t say “50 pairs,” because they don’t form pair bonds and don’t defend territories as pairs.) Lucifers around Big Bend nest mainly on rocky slopes and dry canyons, feeding at flowers of agave, ocotillo, and other desert plants.
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Farther west, Arizona had two very old records, but regular sightings did not begin to accumulate until the 1970s. Lucifers definitely have increased since then. They’re now annual in small numbers in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, and several nests have been found.
Many traveling birders catch up with Lucifers in Arizona now, but often in places that are not quite typical habitat. Although the species favors open desert for nesting, birders are most likely to see it at feeders, and popular feeders attracting Lucifers are in wooded areas: just inside the oak zone in the lower parts of canyons. The species shows up at such spots from late March to early October, and numbers may increase in late summer, as the birds move upslope after nesting. So, many birders have seen Lucifers in Arizona and have seen them well but have come away with misleading impressions of the bird’s usual habitat.
The Lucifer is not a close relative of any other hummingbird in the U.S., and it has a distinctive appearance. Its bill shape — long, somewhat thick, moderately curved — makes a good field mark, but use caution, since other species like Black-chinned and Costa’s Hummingbirds also have slightly curved bills.
The male’s pattern of dull green crown and purple throat, with elongated corners to the gorget, should be diagnostic with a good view. Its conspicuously long, black tail is usually held tightly closed, revealing a deep fork only when spread.
Females and juveniles are variably buff on the face and underparts, but this color alone is not a field mark, since other species also can show buff below. Even a hummingbird that’s essentially whitish below may have its throat stained yellow or buff by pollen from desert flowers. It’s better to note the Lucifer’s face pattern, with a broad eyebrow over a dusky ear patch, giving an appropriately distinctive look to this uncommon borderland specialty.
What to look for
Size and shape. A small-bodied hummingbird with noticeably long tail (especially on males) and long bill.
Bill shape. Long and somewhat heavy, moderately curved.
Male head pattern. Dull green crown and iridescent purple throat, with elongated corners of the gorget extending down the side of the neck.
Female and juvenile face pattern. Dusky patch extends back and down from eye, setting off a pale eyebrow that gets broader toward the rear and connects to a pale chest band.
Tail pattern. Male has long, narrow, black tail, showing a deep fork when spread. Female tail has green central feathers, outer feathers with rufous bases and white tips separated by black subterminal band.
A well-marked female or juvenile Lucifer Hummingbird can be very distinctive. The bill is noticeably curved and looks heavy at the base. (Costa’s, another desert hummingbird, also has a slightly curved bill, but its bill looks very slender.) On the face, a gray ear patch extends back and down from the eye, set off by a pale whitish gray to buff eyebrow stripe that broadens toward the rear. A band between throat and chest can be white to pale buff, and cinnamon buff across the chest and down the flanks varies from obvious to faint. The color of the underparts might suggest Selasphorus species like Rufous Hummingbird, but bill shape and face pattern should rule them out.
Compared to other North American hummingbirds, the Lucifer has odd proportions, and the long, curved bill is only one part of the story. The tail is long, especially on the male. When perched, the length of the tail is made more obvious by the fact that this species has relatively short wings. Illustrations often show the male with a strikingly forked tail, but the fork is seldom visible except during certain maneuvers in flight, including the courtship display. The male Black-chinned Hummingbird, which also occurs in southwestern lowlands, also has a somewhat forked, black tail. Since it also has purple on the lower throat, it is sometimes mistaken for a Lucifer Hummingbird.
Female and juvenile Lucifers can vary in the amount of buff color on the face and underparts. Some, especially adult females in worn plumage, can look mostly grayish white below. The bird in this image shows good buff tones on the sides and flanks but not on its face or throat. The overall pattern of its face is still evident, however, with a strong dusky ear patch extending back from the eye, set off from the gray-green crown by a broad pale eyebrow. A white spot behind the eye is visible but not as prominent as on some other hummers. Notice the bright rufous orange edging in the outer tail feathers, a good distinction from the most similar species.
Although the curved bill is often stressed as a major field mark for Lucifer Hummingbird, some other species have at least a slight curvature to their bills. Among southwestern species, the Black-chinned can have a bill shape approaching that of the Lucifer, as on this female. Because the female Black-chinned also can have a buffy wash on the lower underparts, it may mislead birders eager to find a Lucifer. The two species differ slightly in shape, with the Lucifer having a smaller head and shorter wings, and their face patterns are usually different. If in doubt, check the tail pattern. Female and juvenile Lucifers will show some rufous in the outer tail feathers, lacking on Black-chinneds.
What’s in a name?
As a kid learning about birds, I thought the Lucifer Hummingbird’s name made perfect sense. Illustrations showed the male with a prominently forked tail, and cartoon drawings of Satan often showed him with a forked tail as well. I deduced that Lucifer, as another name for the devil, had been applied to this little bird as a fanciful reference to its tail shape.
It might have seemed logical, but it wasn’t correct. “Lucifer” is based on Latin words meaning “light-bearing.” As with so many other hummingbirds, the iridescent feathers of this species seem to shine with their own light. Scientists have struggled to come up with names for these varied and colorful creatures, and this one happened to get the name Lucifer as a bearer of light.
The hummingbird family includes more than 350 species. If all had names ending in “hummingbird,” it would be challenging to come up with distinct modifiers for them all. But a high percentage of tropical species have more poetic group names: hermit, sunangel, topaz, jacobin, visorbearer, lancebill, fairy, sungem, sylph, coquette, and dozens more.
Species found regularly in the United States and Canada are just called “hummingbird,” although tropical strays break the monotony with names like violetear, mango, and starthroat. Calothorax lucifer is related to several tropical species called sheartails, and some authors suggest that “Lucifer Sheartail” would make a fine English name for this species.