PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 163, Winter 2011: PRBO Partnerships



“Discovered” in the 1870s—in Marin County, California

Charles Allen’s Hummingbird

Rich Stallcup

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An Allen’s Hummingbird feeds. Photo by Tom Grey.
The Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) is closely connected with the region that is home to PRBO.

For nesting, this species is almost a California endemic. The bulk of its world population breeds along coastal regions of the state, with the rest in southwestern Oregon. There are two subspecies: S.s. sasin occupies that range and winters in northwestern Mexico, south to Sinaloa. The sedentary (non-migratory) S.s. sedentarius lives on at least five of the Channel Islands in what is called the Santa Barbara Group (though a fraction of that race winters on the adjacent California mainland in places like the Palos Verdes Peninsula).

Brilliantly colored and pugnacious males are the first spring migrant landbirds to arrive at our latitude, with the earliest ones in the last days of January, followed soon by females. Their blazingly iridescent throats and crowns amaze most humans who actually see them... and are irresistible to female birds that wander into a male’s courtship territory.

A male usually centers his courtship territory on blossoming flowers (manzanita or currant, early; others as spring advances) or a water source, and he aggressively defends it against other male Allen’s. As a passing or local female is attracted to the territory for its forage or water, the male will bedazzle her with flashes of his blazing plumage as he air-dances above her. It seems to work every time. Copulation takes place immediately, the fertilized female moves on, and the male waits for more opportunities.
A bird exhibits the long hummingbird tongue used for drawing nectar from tubed flowers. Photo by Tom Grey.

Females then find places to build their nests, lay eggs (two, always two), and parent the young, alone. The males take no domestic responsibility, and after time passes and there is no more chance to procreate they go back to Mexico.

Mr. Allen

Who was the person who gave his name to this bird? In the fall of 1873, at the age of 32, Charles Andrew Allen took a job as “timber guard” on the Miller Ranch near Nicasio, Marin County, California. He had had little opportunity to gain formal education, but he brought along a childhood appreciation for birds and for collecting. So when not guarding timber and on days off, he collected, prepared, and mailed specimens to museums in the eastern U.S.

He must have been an excellent observer, because behavioral notes that accompanied many of his specimens contained “new” information still valid today.

One shipment of skins that Allen sent to ornithologist William Brewster in Massachusetts held a number of Selasphorus specimens–the bird then known only as Rufous Hummingbird. Allen’s notes clearly suggested that the “green backs” among them had tail feathers of a different shape than did the “rufous-backs” and that the two might be different species. He also detailed behavior differences, observed in life.

The specimens were handed over to Henry Henshaw, who had collected in California, and he agreed with Allen. The two closely related species became separate, and Charles Allen’s finding was honored in the “new” hummingbird’s common name.

Charles remained close to the birds of this region. In the 1880s, he moved with his wife and three daughters to the San Geronimo Valley, also in Marin County’s interior. The Maillard family had given the them a cabin and a piece of land on their property there. The young Malliard brothers, Joseph and John, were amateur ornithologists who learned from Charles Allen’s experience and later became accomplished field biologists themselves.

Charles Allen is long gone and barely remembered, but the hummingbird that bears his name is very much alive and full of energy.

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