Rufous hummingbirds are showing up in the Tri-Cities area more regularly during the cold-weather months. This breed is able to withstand cold better than the Ruby-throated hummingbird more common in the area in the spring. Photo by Rick Phillips
Attracting, feeding and watching hummingbirds is a favorite pastime many folks typically associate with the summer months.
But Mark Armstrong, the bird curator at the Knoxville Zoo, says the winter months can actually be a great time to see some “vagrant” hummingbirds, too.
In the eastern United States, it is the Ruby-throated hummingbird we see during the spring and summer. But Armstrong says in the fall and winter, if you keep your feeders out, you might just see something a little different.
It turns out that our area is right on a migratory path for the Rufous hummingbird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls this little bird “the feistiest hummingbird in North America.” In the spring, the Rufous can be found in California. Then they summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Normally wintering in Mexico, the Rufous has the longest migration route of all U.S. hummingbirds.
But during the past couple of decades, for some reason, the Rufous’ route has brought it to Northeast Tennessee.
“There are several hypotheses as to why,” said Armstrong. “One is that they go to Mexico, find inadequate resources and then head back north. Another theory is that it’s simply an alternative strategy for migration and spending the winter. They’ve figured out they can survive here because more people are putting feeders out. They can survive a whole winter here. Because they’re from Washington, northern Oregon, western Canada and Alaska, they do just fine here. Even in their breeding range, they encounter cooler temperatures and they handle this very well. What they do is they kind of go into hibernation overnight. They lower their body temperature and their breathing rate. It’s a strategy to save energy. And then in the morning, they wake up and come out of their state of hibernation.”
Armstrong is a bird bander, which means he catches the birds and attaches a small band to a bird's leg in order to identify individual birds from the band's unique number.
Armstrong says since he began banding in 2005, he has banded 69 Rufous, two Allen’s Hummingbirds and five Ruby-throats during the winter months. Armstrong says for some reason the Tri-Cities area is attractive to the Rufous hummingbird, and he has made several trips here to band hummingbirds that have shown up at people’s feeders during the “off-season.” He has banded birds in Kingsport, Bristol, Johnson City, Shady Valley and Mountain City.
“A lot of times folks will leave their feeders up and forget about them. Then they’ll see a hummingbird and put some fresh nectar back out. This happens a lot around Thanksgiving,” Armstrong said.
Banding is important to help identify what kind of hummingbird it actually is, he adds.
“A Rufous is very, very similar to an Allen’s and really the only way you can identify them is by having them in hand and measuring their wing and their beak and their tail and looking at the shape of their tail feathers,” Armstrong said.
To band hummers, Armstrong said he uses a wire mesh trap that has a sliding door on the side. He operates the door with a fishing line. He places the hummingbird’s feeder inside the trap and the bird will go right in.
“Hummingbirds are so darn bold. They don’t really seem to mind being caught. They are more interested in the feeder. But once you get them in hand, you can identify them. And once you get them banded, if that bird is caught again by another bander, you can know where that bird goes. It’s basically just a long-term research project. There is a network of banders all over the country. We have a listserv that we all subscribe to, and it’s really big news if you catch somebody else’s bird. I caught a bird one December in Bristol and it had been banded the previous January in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. A friend of mine banded a bird in Tallahassee, Fla., and that bird was caught the next summer in Alaska. If the bird hadn’t have been banded, we would never have known that.”
All hummingbirds tend to remember their migration path from the previous year, Armstrong said.
“To be such small birds, the part of their brains that involve memory is proportionately very large,” Armstrong said. “It’s kind of similar to a crow or a blue jay — any bird that stores food. You’ll catch birds in migration year after year at the same feeders. And they always come back real close to the same day as they showed up the year before. They have an excellent memory. They will remember where they go, feeders they’ve stopped at, routes that they’ve taken. They even remember landmarks.”
If you see a hummingbird after the first of November, Armstrong said the chances are good it’s a “wintering” bird, and we can all do things to try to attract them and keep them around.
“Keep your feeders out and keep them thawed. That’s the biggest help you can give them,” he said. “They will find their own shelter. It’s hard to predict where they’re going to go. They’ll do fine as long as they have access to that feeder. How long they will stay around is real variable. I think it just depends on the resources around them. If the winter gets too harsh, a lot of times they’ll just disappear. We don’t know what happens to them — if they’ve made it, if they’ve moved on. There’s just no way of knowing. Because they are such rare birds, the only way to get one is to put out a feeder.”
Many people erroneously believe leaving feeders out past Labor Day alters the hummingbirds’ instincts to migrate.
“You can leave your feeders out year-round. Just because the feeder’s out, this won’t keep them around when it’s time for those to leave that typically migrate in late summer. There may be a few stragglers hanging around, but the Ruby-throats, they just aren’t as hardy as the Rufous, and they know when it’s time to leave,” he said.
But for a few lucky folks, Armstrong said some birds will overwinter at the same place and then return the following year.
“These birds will spend the winter and then leave in the spring and then come back the next winter, just like they belong there,” he said.
As we head into fall and cooler weather, if you see a hummingbird around your feeder, Armstrong encourages you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.