Hummingbirds

All posts tagged Hummingbirds

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!

By Derek Stoner, Family Programs Coordinator

A young male Rufous Hummingbird sips from a nectar feeder in Avondale, PA.  October 2009 photo by Kathy Weaver.

A young female Rufous Hummingbird sips from a nectar feeder in Avondale, PA. October 2009 photo by Kathy Weaver.

The 30-degree weather this past weekend did not faze the young female Rufous Hummingbird visiting a backyard in Avondale, PA.  Weighing in at 3 grams and possessing a stove-hot metabolism with a heart beat of 600 beats per minute, this tiny bird is thriving on the nectar of late-blooming flowers, tiny insects and spiders, and a generous suppply of sugar water offered by the owners of a vibrant backyard habitat.  

An immature male Rufous Hummingbird perches on a feeder in Dover, DE, on January 22, 2009.

A young male Rufous Hummingbird perches on a feeder in Dover, DE. Notice the spider silk caught in his beak, as spiders are a key dietary component of hummingbirds in winter. January 22, 2009 photo by Derek Stoner.

How do they survive the cold?  These hummingbirds have the unique ability to “turn down the thermostat” so to speak, through a process called torpor.  As the hummingbird settles in for the night to sleep, their heartbeat slows to less than 100 beats per minute.  The torpid state has been described as “suspended animation” as the bird enters a zone of semi-consciousness.
A Rufous hummingbird perches on branch on January 22, 2009.  Photo by Derek Stoner.

A Rufous Hummingbird perches on branch on January 22, 2009. This bird survived overnight temperatures of 5 degrees! Photo by Derek Stoner.

The obvious question is: what is this hummingbird doing here right now?  Is he lost?  Is he going to survive the cold winter?  Fortunately, scientists(bird banders in particular) in recent years have started to unravel this story of how hummingbirds are spending the winter on the East Coast.  There are several bird banders in the region who are working to solve this mystery.  Well-known author and bird bander Scott Weidensaul’s website has an excellent discussion of this research:  http://www.scottweidensaul.com/research_hummingbirds.html
A young male Rufous Hummingbird stretches his wings.  December 1, 2006 photo by Jim White.

A Rufous Hummingbird stretches his wings. December 1, 2006 photo by Jim White.

The Rufous Hummingbird is the most widely-distributed hummingbird in North America, breeding as far north as Alaska.  The Rufous has been recorded in every US state except Hawaii, and undertakes the longest migration of any North American hummingbird.  The majority of Rufous Hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and Central America, but new evidence points to the fact that more of these birds are wintering in the eastern United States than we may realize. 
A Rufous Hummingbird visitng Jim White's feeder in Winter 2006.  Notice the silver band on the bird's leg!  Photo by Jim White.

A Rufous Hummingbird visiting Jim White's feeder in Winter 2006. Notice the silver band on the bird's leg! Photo by Jim White.

Other species of hummingbird are also being documented wintering along the East Coast, from Calliope to Allen’s to Broad-billed Hummingbirds.  Scientists and birders alike are re-thinking their ideas about hummingbird migration and the selection of wintering habitat.
There is a lot more to learn about these amazing hummingbirds.   Stay tuned for part two of this story!