Sean M. Williams and Andrew C. Vitz
Rufous Hummingbird. Photograph by Alan Schmierer.
Hummingbirds are treasured by birders and casual nature enthusiasts as living avian gems. Many New Englanders construct their gardens around nectar-rich plants and hummingbird feeders explicitly to attract and observe hummingbirds. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is the only breeding species of hummingbird in New England and eastern North America, but it is not the only species that regularly occurs in our region.
On December 18, 1909, Mr. Edward Hyer, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, noticed a hummingbird in his yard. The rarity of a hummingbird in the winter immediately struck Hyer, who collected the specimen for preservation at the Charleston Museum. The hummingbird was originally identified as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird until, 19 years later, ornithologists attending the 1928 annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union were scrutinizing specimens (Sprunt 1929). They came across the specimen deposited by Mr. Hyer and, to their shock, re-identified it as a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). At the time, that Rufous Hummingbird represented the only hummingbird other than Ruby-throated Hummingbird to occur east of the Mississippi River.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photograph © Shawn P. Carey.
Since the December 1909 Charleston record, many more Rufous Hummingbirds have been reported in the East, with an ever-increasing frequency. During the 1930s to 1950s, multiple Rufous Hummingbirds were recorded from Florida. The first New England record was in 1957 in Orono, Maine (Wilson 1990). Today, dozens of Rufous Hummingbirds are reported annually along the eastern Gulf Coast and elsewhere east of the Mississippi River, as far east and north as Nova Scotia. Such reports have recently been recorded at the rate of 25–75 per year (eBird 2017). Furthermore, a minimum of 18 species of hummingbirds now have been documented east of the Mississippi, with many species demonstrating an increasing rate of reports. Massachusetts alone has recorded approximately 50 Rufous Hummingbirds, with about two to five reports per year (eBird 2017, Massachusetts Avian Records Committee 2017). Almost all records pertain to immature birds in the fall, mostly October through December. A potential mechanism explaining the increase in western hummingbird reports in the fall and winter in the eastern United States is the increased of use of hummingbird feeders, which likely leads to increased detection by observers at the feeders (Greig et al. 2017).
The thrill of attracting a rare western hummingbird to your own yard is unparalleled. While the key component to attracting stray hummingbirds is to maintain fresh feeders through December, there are additional strategies to increase your probability of success. We provide a few critical tips for attracting your own hummingbird vagrant:
Locate one or more feeders in an open area where flyover hummingbirds will see the bright red feeders from afar. If possible, hang the feeder from a tall pole high off the ground, which will increase its visibility.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird at feeder. Photograph by Sean McGrath (CC BY 2.0)
The feeders themselves should be bright red. As a side note, the color of the sugar water—one part sugar, four parts water—should be clear and not contain red dye, which over the long term may give hummingbirds liver failure.
Place multiple feeders in as many different areas of the yard as possible. The first author maintains at least five feeders through early December.
Plant late-season nectaring flowers that can attract late-season hummingbirds even without feeders.
Once you have attracted a late-season hummingbird, keep the feeders from freezing by taking them inside at night. Also, at least one of the feeders should be located near a dense conifer where hummingbirds find refuge between feedings in cold weather.
How will you be able to distinguish a western hummingbird species from a Ruby-throated Hummingbird? Perhaps the easiest initial indicator of a western hummingbird is the date of the sighting. Any hummingbird seen after the first week of October, for example on October 10, should be scrutinized carefully. By October 10, almost all Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have departed our region, and small numbers of western hummingbird species have arrived, and continue to arrive. Therefore a hummingbird observed after October 10 more likely might be a western species than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
All that being said, non-Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been documented in Massachusetts during times of the year when Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are still common. It is wise to learn the basic aspects of fall hummingbird identification, which can be some of the most challenging identification conundrums in New England. For example, dull female and immature hummingbirds in the genus Selasphorus, such as Rufous and Calliope (Selasphorus calliope), can appear similar to female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. In addition, female and immature Black-chinned Hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri) are nearly identical in plumage to female and immature Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A basic field guide can offer initial identification tips, and Sheri Williamson’s A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America contains advanced identification information (Williamson 2001).
Immature Female Rufous Hummingbird. Photograph by Alan Schmierer.
Our most common vagrant, the Rufous Hummingbird, is well adapted to cool temperatures. Its breeding range extends from coastal Oregon, west into Montana, and north to Alaska, where temperatures regularly dip down to 15–20ºF at night (Healy and Calder 2006). This hummingbird species is capable of surviving subfreezing temperatures by entering into a state of torpor, although it is unlikely to survive an entire New England winter. Many vagrant hummingbirds appear to depart a hosting yard in decent body condition since people often report the hummingbird feeding heavily before last being seen. Heavy feeding is a typical behavior to put on extra fat before a migratory movement (Russell et al. 1994).
Sometimes a hummingbird may not depart and will stay into the winter, likely resulting in an unfortunate fate in New England. For example, in September 1996, a female Rufous Hummingbird appeared in a yard in Agawam, Massachusetts. The hummingbird remained in the yard into November, and discussion ensued on whether to intervene with the fate of the hummingbird. Tom French, Assistant Director of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program at MassWildlife, was contacted, and a one-time-only permit was issued as an experiment to capture the hummingbird and relocate it into a greenhouse for the winter. The bird was released in the spring and, surprisingly, returned for seven consecutive years, each year being captured and moved into the same greenhouse. Since that era, MassWildlife has reviewed this policy, and has explicitly decided not to issue permits for capturing hummingbirds for the purpose of housing them for the winter. It has become clear that at least some of these hummingbirds leave and return on their own accord, and housing each individual likely is interfering unnecessarily. In addition, it is imperative to understand that vagrants lie on an extreme end of a spectrum—often natural selection acts negatively upon these exceptional individuals. We must accept that natural selection has run its course for millions of years without human assistance, and it is in the best interest of the species to allow natural selection to continue instead of humans attempting to decide what we think is best. While it is true that hummingbird feeders are unnatural food sources, these vagrant hummingbirds have arrived in New England independent of the presence of hummingbird feeders. Hummingbird feeders simply allow these vagrants to fuel up before departing the region.
We offer the following guidelines for homeowners fortunate enough to successfully attract a vagrant hummingbird to their feeder. First, we want to ensure that these hummingbirds get documented and banded. As soon as possible after observing a hummingbird after October 10th, or a suspicious-looking hummingbird before October 10th, please report it—with attached photo if possible—to both Sean Williams, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee at email@example.com and Andrew Vitz, the Massachusetts State Ornithologist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In some cases, species identification is only possible if the bird is examined in the hand. In addition, placing a tiny band with a unique number on the bird’s leg provides the opportunity to better understand survival and movements. In the following year, if the banded bird returns to the same location or appears elsewhere, reading the band number is the only way to determine if it is the same individual. There are at least three certified and licensed hummingbird banders who are authorized to capture and band hummingbirds in Massachusetts. They are:
Hummingbirds can take up to three weeks to gain enough fat stores to allow migration, which often occurs with the passage of weather systems (Carpenter et al. 1993). High quality migratory stopover sites that contain abundant food resources expedite their departure since hummingbirds gain fat more efficiently at high quality sites compared to low quality sites (Russell et al. 1994). Therefore allowing the hummingbird to feed on abundant food resources in order to gain fat may be the best course of action to encourage its departure. However if you would like to take a more proactive approach, we offer the following advice to encourage the departure of a vagrant hummingbird. If the hummingbird has been present for at least three weeks, temporarily remove the feeders just before a cold front moves through the region. We recommend removing the feeders only during the middle of the day. The feeders still should be available in the early morning and late afternoon since these are the most important feeding hours. However, removal of the feeders as a method of encouraging a hummingbird’s departure is an untested hypothesis. The hummingbird may be just as likely to migrate regardless of feeder availability.
Without doubt, western hummingbirds will continue to occur in Massachusetts, and it is our opinion that these guidelines provide the best actions for the birds. Please report your vagrant hummingbird sightings to the authors, and do not hesitate to contact us with specific inquiries about odd hummingbirds in your yard.
- Carpenter, F. L., M. A. Hixon, C. A. Beuchat, R. W. Russell, and D. C. Paton. 1993. Biphasic mass gain in migrant hummingbirds: Body composition changes, torpor, and ecological significance. Ecology 74: 1173–1182.
- eBird. 2017. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: www.ebird.org. Accessed July 24, 2017.
- Greig, E. I., E. M. Wood, and D. N. Bonter. 2017. Winter range expansion of a hummingbird is associated with urbanization and supplementary feeding. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284: pii: 20170256. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0256.
- Healy, S. and W. A. Calder. 2006. Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) in The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/rufhum. Accessed August 9, 2017.
- Massachusetts Avian Records Committee. 2017. Database. www.maavianrecords.com/database (accessed August 10, 2017).
- Russell, R. W., F. L. Carpenter, M. A. Hixon, and D. C. Paton. 1994. Impact of variation in stopover habitat quality on migrant Rufous Hummingbirds. Conservation Biology 8: 483–490.
- Sprunt, A. 1929. The Rufus Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) in South Carolina. Auk 46: 237–238.
- Williamson, S. 2001. A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Wilson, H. 1990. The autumn migration: 1 August–30 November, 1990. Maine Bird Notes 4: 19–29.
Sean M. Williams grew up in South Boston, where he often visited urban oases as a young birder. Recently he completed his graduate degree from Michigan State University in biology. He has been working for MassWildlife and will be leading field trips to his field sites in Peru.
Andrew C. Vitz is the State Ornithologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, where he works on a variety of issues related to bird conservation. Before coming to Massachusetts, Andrew worked at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pennsylvania and completed his graduate work at Ohio State University. He lives in Princeton and enjoys local birding at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary and Wachusett Mountain State Reservation.