Hummers, those mighty migrants, can still show up in winter

Mid-October marks the end of the ruby-throated hummingbird migration season, so it’s time to take down nectar feeders, clean them thoroughly, and store them until April, right?

Generally, that’s good advice, but if you’re a hopeful birder, keep one feeder filled all winter. You may get to see a wandering hummingbird from the west.

Hummingbird experts report that ruby-throated hummingbirds, the common species here in the east, head south by mid-October. In fact, adult males left in late August, and adult females and juveniles left several weeks later. Any hummers seen in recent weeks have been migrants from the north.

Hummingbirds seen after you read this are likely to be strays from the west and should be reported.

Winter sightings

In recent years the Hummer/Bird Study Group has documented 14 species of hummingbirds wandering east during the fall and winter. Most have been rufous hummers, but other species include ruby-throated, black-chinned, Allen’s, Anna’s, calliope, buff-bellied, broad-tailed, white-eared, green violet-ear, magnificent, green-breasted mango, broad-billed, and Costa’s.

Bob Sargent, founder of the Hummer/Bird Study Group urges hummingbird enthusiasts to maintain one feeder all winter, keep it clean, and place it where it can be easily viewed.

“If you live in the range for the ruby-throated hummingbirds,” Sargent explains, “you will not make them stay if you leave a feeder out in winter. When it’s time, they will migrate with or without your feeder.”

The Hummer/Bird Study Group Web site offers instructions for heating a nectar feeder to keep the nectar from freezing.

My ‘Ruthie’

I first learned of winter hummingbird sightings back in October 1997 when a female rufous hummer showed up at a feeder in Delmont, Pa. just east of Pittsburgh.

“Ruthie,” as she came to be known, became a popular topic for discussion on my radio show (listen live on Sunday afternoons from noon to 2 p.m.).

In December 1997, banders from the Hummer/Bird Study Group captured and banded the bird.

Amazingly Ruthie returned to the same backyard in October 1998. She died in January 1999 and now resides in the bird collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Tough little birds

Since then, many rufous hummers have appeared throughout the East each fall. Some stay for several months before heading south to warmer climes.

What’s most remarkable about this is that the normal range of rufous hummingbirds is the Pacific northwest — from Oregon and Idaho north to Alaska. They are tough little birds and easily survive sub-freezing night time temperatures.

Their normal migratory path takes them south through the western states to wintering grounds in southern California, the Gulf coast, and Mexico.

That western hummingbirds occasionally appear in the east in fall and winter is a fact. Exactly how they manage to make and survive such a long journey, however, is problematic. Birds’ migratory routes are at least partly encoded in their genes, and hummingbird bander Scott Wiedensaul thinks wandering hummers that appear in the east are the result of genetic mistakes.

“If a rufous hummingbird’s innate fall migratory instructions send it west, it will die in the Pacific Ocean,” he says. “If it goes north, it will die in the Arctic. But if its bearing takes it east, it has a good chance of surviving and working its way south to Florida or the Gulf coast. And those genetic instructions remain in the population to be passed on to the next generation.”

That’s a reasonable explanation for why oddball hummers keep showing up in the East.

Other species

And the possibilities’ aren’t just limited to rufous hummingbirds. In 2005, for example, an Anna’s hummingbird was reported near Cincinnati, a first record for Ohio. Normally Anna’s hummingbirds nest from southern Arizona north to British Columbia, and their migratory habits are not well known. In fact, many do not migrate at all, so an appearance in Ohio is noteworthy.

If you see a hummingbird between now and March, there are people who want to know. Bob Sargent (205-681-2888; rubythroat@aol.com) can put you touch with a bander in your area.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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