If you see a hummingbird, tell officials

Christmas for Ohio and Pennsylvania Birders Pennsylvania and Ohio birders must have been particularly good this year. In mid-December they got an early Christmas gift. On almost the same day, an Allen’s hummingbird showed up in Holmes County, Ohio and Lancaster County, Pa.

It was a first for both states. Over the last 12 years western hummingbirds have appeared in the east with increasing frequency. Rufous hummers, in particular, have come to be expected in many eastern states each winter. This is a particularly hardy hummingbird that nests on the west coast as far north as Alaska.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the common species here in the east, head south by late October. Any hummingbird seen after that time is likely to be a stray from the west, and it should be reported.

In recent years the Hummer/Bird Study Group has documented 13 species of hummingbirds wandering east during the fall and winter. Most have been rufous hummers. 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 the subject of news reports and talk radio. In December 1997 banders from the Alabama-based 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 is now a specimen in the bird collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Since then many rufous hummers have shown up 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.

Birds’ migratory routes are at least partly encoded in their genes, and hummingbird bander Scott Weidensaul thinks the wandering hummers that appear in the east are the result of “bad software.” “If a western hummingbird’s innate fall migratory instructions send it west, it will die in the Pacific Ocean,” Weidensaul explains. “If it goes north, it will die in the Arctic. But if its bearing takes it east to Pennsylvania or New Jersey, 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 western hummers keep showing up in the east. To have a chance, and I emphasize “chance,” to see a winter hummer, hummingbird expert Bob Sargent of the Hummer/Bird Study Group suggests keeping a nectar feeder filled all winter. You just might be one of the lucky few to see a wandering winter hummingbird.

The Hummer BSG web site (www.hummingbirdsplus.org ) offers instructions for heating a nectar feeder to keep the nectar from freezing. And the possibilities aren’t just limited to rufous hummers.

In 2005 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 was noteworthy. The Allen’s hummingbirds that appeared in Ohio and Pennsylvania this month are particularly notable because its normal range is even more limited than the rufous hummer.

Allen’s hummingbirds nest along the California coast and north into Oregon; most winter in Mexico. Plus, Allen’s and rufous hummingbirds are similar in appearance and often require a good look at the tail to correctly identify. When Weidensaul heard about the Lancaster County bird, he visited the site the next day to trap and band the bird. “When I opened my hand and saw that distinctive Allen’s tail, my heart skipped a beat. It was quite a thrill.”

If you ever see a hummingbird in winter, there are people who want to know. Bob Sargent (Rubythroat@aol.com) can put you touch with a nearby bander.

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

One Comment

  1. tom norton says:

    I have hummers wintering over with me. For three years only one pair stayed over. This year three have stayed all apper to be allens, one male and two female.Five days ago Feb.2nd at just before dark,I was watching my feeders out thur the kitchen window Much to my deight. Six hummers where feding on two feeders. Two male four female One male was twice the size of any bird Ive seen could not i.d. Him. He was feeding again this moring Feb 7th. He stayed on thee feeder longer than a normal bird.

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