“Winter” Hummingbirds, Part Two

By Derek Stoner, Family Programs Coordinator

An immature female Rufous Hummingbird captured and anded in Avondale, PA in October 2009.
An immature female Rufous Hummingbird captured and banded in Avondale, PA in October 2009. Photo by Nick Pulcinella

Continuing our story of wintering hummingbirds, the big question is: how do you attract one of these birds to your yard?

During migration, these remarkable birds navigate through the landscape of suburbia and manage to find tiny a tiny oasis of habitat that can sustain their basic needs.  If an ideal location is found, then that is where the bird may spend its wintering period.  

Blooming Pineapple Sage is very attractive to hummingbirds.
Blooming Pineapple Sage is very attractive to hummingbirds. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Of the backyard “winter hummingbird hotels” that I have visited(eight in total), there are four key components that each location has in common:

1.  A feeder that is kept full of fresh sugar water(and not allowed to freeze solid).  Heat lamps on the feeder are a way to solve the freezing issue.

2.  Thick cover for the bird to roost in at night.  Rufous Hummingbirds  seem to prefer to roost in an evergreens or thick vines.

3.  Late-blooming flowers such as sage, that provide a natural nectar source.

4.  Native plants that host a variety of insects and spiders for the hummingbird to eat.  Arthopods make up a large percentage of their winter diet.

Bruce Peterjohn, a professional bird bander, places a wire cage trap around the hummingbird feeder at Jimw White's home.  They captured the young male Rufous Hummingbird in this trap!  Photo by Jim White.
Bruce Peterjohn, a professional bird bander, places a wire cage trap around the hummingbird feeder at Jim White's home. Photo by Jim White.

If you are so lucky to attract and host a hummingbird during the winter, you have the unique opportunity to have the bird banded for science.  A professional bird bander with special training in hummingbirds can use a simple trap to capture the bird, which is then weighed, measured, banded(with the tiniest of metal bands on its leg!), photographed and released. 

Through banding efforts, scientists have learned that some hummingbirds will return to the exact same backyard winter after winter.  This evidence points to the fact that we are observing a natural phenomenon, and not just the case of some birds getting lost and ending up on the east coast.  An example of adaptive behavior may the reason for this situation, as these hardy birds are finding suitable habitat here without migrating all the way to Mexico or Central America.

An immature male Rufous Hummingbird rest on a branch after being baded.  Photo by Jim White, November 2006
An immature male Rufous Hummingbird rest on a branch after being banded. Photo by Jim White, November 2006

So, keep your hummingbird feeders up, cross your fingers, and let us know if a little rust-colored hummingbird shows up in your yard this winter!

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