Sunday, October 17, 2010


Every autumn people tell me they’re taking down their hummingbird feeders for the season. It’s an old wives tale that if you leave your feeders up, the birds will not migrate. This is simply not true; no matter what, a healthy bird will follow its intense and primal instinct to migrate, and a birdfeeder will not delay that process. (Above: Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird in my Chesapeake yard)

But there is good reason to keep your hummingbird feeders up through the fall and winter. Every year there are a very few humming birds that do winter in Virginia, and they actually need our feeders far more than the summer birds do. The winter birds will not find natural sources of nectar, so their only chance of survival is to find a fresh and unfrozen hummingbird feeder to help them through those tough months.

It’s true that winter hummingbirds are quite rare in Virginia, and I myself have never had the honor of hosting one. But every year, a lucky few who do keep their feeders full attract one of these beauties. Wintering hummingbirds fall into two categories: those that are common here in the summer months and those that do not normally occur here at all. The first category, of course, is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only hummingbird that breeds in the eastern United States. This is the species you see at Virginia feeders and gardens from April to late-September when they migrate south. (Photo of male Ruby-throat, above, courtesy of

I mourn the Ruby-throats’ disappearance every October, and miss their antics; it’s great entertainment in the early fall to watch the year’s hatchlings learning how to be grown-ups. Ruby-throats are highly territorial and feisty, and they teach their young to be the same way. They muster up all the machismo they can and “play war” with each other, defending the best perches and the best nectar sources, and showing off for the ladies. And then one day, they’re just gone from my yard.

Most Ruby-throats winter in Mexico, Central America, and on Caribbean islands. Those that go to Mexico fly non-stop for 18-20 hours across the Gulf of Mexico, an absolutely remarkable feat. But a few do remain each year in the Gulf states and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and, very rarely, one might stay along the Virginia coast, like the one in the photo, left, that spent all of last winter at a Sandbridge feeder. As you can see, this individual looks nothing like the splendid adult male with the showy red throat; most of the hummingbirds we see in the winter are “immature” birds that have the duller, plain plumage of the females.

The second category of hummingbirds that we hope for in the winter are the rarities, the vagrants from the western U.S. that have migrated here by an accident of nature. Instead of migrating south through the western states, a few always get turned around and head east instead. With luck, some find a feeder to sustain them through the winter , and what could have been bad news for the bird becomes a bonanza for birdwatchers, especially those who like to keep a “count” of all the species they have seen, and give chase to the rare birds that show up in their region. If a homeowner is hosting a rare winter hummingbird and shares this information with the birding community, he can expect anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred human visitors who want to see the bird and add it to their “bird list.”

The most common of the western hummingbirds that occasionally shows up in Virginia is the Rufous Hummingbird. It breeds west of the Rocky Mountains, and was the most common hummingbird where I lived in western Oregon. Just last week, a beautiful subadult male Rufous or Allen's Hummingbird (the two are difficult to distinguish until they are in full adult plumage) showed up at Mark Mullins' feeder in Claytor Lake (Pulaski County), and undoubtedly a few more will be reported over the next few months. Mark took some gorgeous pictures of his bird, and graciously gave me permission to post them here (Thank you, Mark). The photo above is a picture from of an adult Rufous Hummingbird. The following two are of Mark's bird; notice the subadult bird's gorget feathers just barely starting to grow in. Be sure to click on Mark's picture to see a larger version.

In December 2008, I made a run to Lynchburg to see a Calliope Hummingbird that a homeowner was hosting at his feeder. The Calliope too is a bird that breeds only west of the Rockies (left is an old photo I took of a male when I lived in Oregon). The Calliope is our smallest hummingbird, a tiny 3 ¼” long, and this little guy took a wrong turn on his way to Mexico and wound up in, of all places, Lynchburg, where winters are freezing cold! The homeowners there took extreme measures to keep their feeder ready for that little hummer; they strung up some kind of warming light that they found at a feed store to prevent the sugar water from freezing during the day. Every night they took the feeder inside, and then got up early in the morning to hang it back up for their guest. That Calliope survived there for several months before it migrated back to wherever it belonged.

Here is my very poor picture of the Lynchburg Calliope. You can see that it is a female or an immature bird that lacks the distinctive plumage of the adult male above. The female and immature plumages of many hummingbird species are very similar, and it’s often difficult to make a positive identification by sight alone. Sometimes when a rare hummingbird is sited here, a hummingbird bander is called upon, especially if the bird might be a very rare species. He captures the bird by placing a sugar water feeder inside a cage and closing the door when the bird goes inside to drink; he examines the bird in hand, takes its measurements, checks on its health, and confirms its species before releasing it again.

Other rare hummingbirds that have visited Virginia feeders include Allen’s (photo of an immature California Allen's, left) and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Again, your chances of seeing a winter hummingbird in your Chesapeake yard are slim at best, but they are absolutely zilch if you don’t put out a feeder. True, you have to replace the sugar water every day during freezing temperatures, but for me that’s a small price to pay if you save a lost bird. Now, about hummingbird feeders:

For some reason stores still sell a product they call “hummingbird nectar” that makes a red liquid when mixed with water. It was established years ago that adding a red dye to the water can only harm the birds, and is completely unnecessary. All they need is sugar water: put ¼ cup of sugar in a measuring cup then fill cup with water to the 1-cup line. Then stir well a few times until the sugar dissolves completely. You don’t need anything else. The hummingbirds do not need red water to find your feeder; the red parts of your feeder are completely adequate in getting their attention.

Maybe if all of us keep a feeder out for a few more weeks or months, one of us will be lucky enough to attract a hummingbird! Let’s try – and if you do see one, please call me right away at the Chesapeake Library (Karen @ 410-7147) and I’ll come out and take a look. (And you can decide if you want to share your bird with others; I won't spread the word without your consent). Good luck!