Bird of the Week: Rufous Hummingbird


Rufous Hummingbird by David M. Schindler
Rufous hummingbird by David M. Schindler.

About a week before Thanksgiving, fellow science writer Rick Borchelt spotted a “way out of season and way out of range” rufous hummingbird feasting at his backyard sugar-water feeder in College Park, Maryland. Since then, “I have been overrun with the area’s birders,” says Borchelt. “So far, every one of more than 100 visitors has seen the little beast.”

Changing Winter Ranges?
According to an article, “The Hummingbirds of Winter,” in the current issue of National Wildlife, such out-of-range-and-season sightings of hummingbirds are becoming increasingly common, particularly in the Southeastern United States. Author Doreen Cubie, a South Carolina-based freelance writer, is helping to investigate this phenomenon as a member of a coalition of some 30 federal- and state-licensed bird banders working in the region.

Over the past decade,  Cubie’s colleague Fred Bassett has banded nearly 2,000 hummingbirds in the Southeast during winter; almost half have been rufous hummingbirds, reports Bassett, who heads the Montgomery, Alabama-based Hummingbird Research, Inc. Rufous hummingbirds, which breed as far north as south-central Alaska (farther north than any other hummingbird species), are considered western species. According to most bird guides, they are supposed to spend the nonbreeding season in Mexico.

Asked about Borchelt’s backyard visitor, Cubie says, “We think many of the rufous that overwinter in the Southeast move down through Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic during fall. We’re getting some banding data to support that hummingbirds that are banded up your way are recaptured here a few months later.”

Evolution in Action
Borchelt suspects his rufous may stick around longer. “What I think is happening,” he says, “is that birds from the Canadian Rockies go east across the Plains on fall migration (instead of down the eastern side of the Sierra) and find patches of resources where they hang out for the season. For rufous, winter here isn’t that much different from early spring in the Rockies—they’re really hardy little birds.”

“There’s an emerging consensus that ‘vagrant’ hummingbirds [those that winter outside traditional ranges] are some kind of genetic ‘scouts’ programmed to prospect for likely winter habitat,” adds Borchelt. “Mine seems to have hit pay dirt. She may have moved in for the season . . . as long as I keep the feeder unfrozen!”

Rufous hummingbird by Ronald T. Sells
This rufous lived oustide Ronald Sells' home near Tallulah Falls, Georgia, from November 2009 through March 2010, "one of the coldest winters in recent years," says Sells. "Despite the rigors of the weather, the hardy bird survived." Photo by Ronald T. Sells.

In another National Wildlife article, “Tiny Trailblazers,” naturalist and writer Scott Weidensaul supports the idea that new migratory routes are evolving.  A licensed hummingbird bander himself, Weidensaul writes that “some birds—born with a genetic hiccup in their software—head the wrong way.  In the past this might have been fatal, but those heading east now find a land of milk and honey, where ancient forests have been replaced by fields and homes (many with feeders) and where the climate is milder than it was just a generation ago. These birds, in turn, head back to the breeding grounds in spring and spread their ‘faulty’ genes among the population.”

Backyard Tips: Rufous hummingbirds readily visit sugar-water feeders and nectar-producing flowers in backyard gardens. But watch out:   Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds,”—which shows this species wintering in Mexico—calls the rufous “the feistiest hummingbird in North America.” The birds “are relentless attackers at flowers and feeders, going after (if not always defeating) even the large hummingbirds of the Southwest, which can be double their weight.”

“There’s no truth to the myth that keeping a feeder up after Labor Day will stop hummingbirds from migrating,” says Bob Sargent, who with his wife, Martha Sargent, runs the Clay, Alabama-based nonprofit Hummer/Bird Study Group.

Voice: Call a sharp, rich tchup, relatively low and resonant.

Sources: “The Hummingbirds of Winter” by Doreen Cubie, National Wildlife, December/January 2011, “Tiny Trailblazers” by Scott Weidensaul, National Wildlife, December/January 2007, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds and National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Report Winter Hummingbirds: If you leave a sugar-water feeder out during the fall and winter–and spot a hummingbird after November 1–the Hummer/Bird Study Group wants to know about it. Contact the group at

Create a haven for hummingbirds by using feeders and flowers to nourish these avian pollinators.

Make your yard attractive to birds and other wildlife by becoming an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat.