[The following is an updated version of the original syndicated column, "Wild Ideas," first published in newspapers the week of November 8, 2010. ]
A lot of us in Virginia enjoy feeding hummingbirds, putting our nectar feeders out in the spring at the first sign of their arrival, and taking them in after the last hummer disappears for its long trek south in the fall.
This rufuous hummingbird was spotted at
a feeder on the Northern Neck.
(Photo © Fawn Palmer/Virginia Master Naturalist,
Northern Neck chapter)
While at my brothers' in Southeast Alaska this fall, we were watching rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) at his feeders, swapping stories about his hummers and mine here in Virginia, the ruby-throated (Archiochus colubris). I bemoaned the fact that each of us only got to see one species of hummer where we lived.
While species have a habit of adapting as conditions change, I was still surprised last week to see a posting on a conservation e-mail list from a Master Naturalist on the Northern Neck, Fawn Palmer, describing what she thought was a rufous hummer at her feeder. So I started doing research.
I found out that the range of the rufous had expanded into the Virginia in the 1980s and now extends all the way up the East Coast into the Canadian Maritimes, according to Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Banding Laboratory of the the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Palmer had contacted Peterjohn to come confirm the identity of the hummer at her feeder, which he did.
According to Hummingbirds.net, the rufous is “the most widely distributed hummingbird in North America” and have even been spotted in Siberia. I found a map, at Learners.org that animated the number of sightings along the East Coast as the year progressed.
This male rufous was spotted at a
feeder in Loudoun County.
(Photo © Joe Coleman,
Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy)
I also did a quick poll of some birders I know in the Piedmont and got several reports of the rufous showing up at feeders this year or in past years and one being recorded in a Central Loudoun [County] Christmas Bird Count.
An individual Selasphorus rufus can also fly an incredible distance annually. The Checklist cites an immature female that was captured and banded in Chesterfield, Virginia (a few miles south of Richmond) on November 29, 2001. This bird was recaptured near Red Lodge, Montana, in August 2002, and then recaptured again at the same feeder in Chesterfield on December 1, 2002. That's almost 6,000 miles of traveling in a year—maybe more, since migration of hummingbirds tend to be “U” shaped, dipping to the south.
The expansion in its range is not the only interesting thing about the rufous. Measuring in at a whopping maximum 3.5 inches and 0.12 ounces for the females (who are larger than the males), this tiny bird is often described as being “tough,” “feisty,” and agile enough to outmaneuver other hummers at feeders.
It could be that even more rufous have made Virginia part of their range, as identifying this species can be tricky. The males, mostly garbed in iridescent rufous (the color of oxidized iron), are pretty easy to identify during much of the year. However, during molt, when they swap out old feathers for new, they lose this bright coloration.
Females and especially the young are hard to identify at any time of the year. They can be confused with ruby-throated, and for another bird, the Allen's hummingbird (Selaphorus sasin). The Allen's shares the rufous' breeding ground in Mexico and has also expanded its range into Virginia.
The females and young are so similar between the rufous and Allen's, says Peterjohn, that he has to use a caliper to measure the outer tail feathers, which are millimeters wider on the rufous, to tell the two species apart. The ratio of rufous to Allen's in Virginia is about 15:1, according to Peterjohn, so sightings are more likely to be of the former.
Another interesting thing about rufous hummers is that, although they usually arrive here in August, most sightings are in October through December, and even through the winter. How do they survive when the nectar-producing flowers are gone for the year?
While it's true that hummers generally prefer nectar when available, when that''s not available, they rely on insects for food, especially to feed their young. Insects will also appear throughout the fall and winter here whenever temperatures get above 40 degrees.
What about when it's colder? That's where we humans come in. The rufous can overwinter here only if we feed them. The increase in the number of people feeding this them is why their range has expanded, says Peterjohn.