Nancy L. Newfield has been watching hummingbirds at her Louisiana home and lots of other places since 1975. Nancy lost her amateur status years ago, and now writes and lectures on hummers. She is co-author of Hummingbird Gardens, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Nancy is also a licensed hummingbird bander and a recognized authority on hummingbird distribution, behavior, and taxonomy.
Lost in AmericaOctober can be a bleak month for hummingbirders in the U.S. and Canada. The vast majority of migratory hummers has departed for Mexico and Central America. It will be many months before hummingbirds reappear to reap the rewards of springtime snow melt. Frigid winds rake Canada and the upper Midwest. Remaining flowers, the last remnants of spring, blacken with the first frost.
Residents of frost-free areas of California can smugly enjoy their red-headed Anna's Hummingbirds and some will see Allen's and Costa's in their everblooming gardens as well. And, southern Floridians may see a certain portion of the eastern-breeding Ruby-throat population that goes no farther than the southern tip of the peninsula. But, for much of the continent, ice and snow of the winter will prevail and hummingbirds will be far from birder's minds.
Nevertheless, each autumn a few hummers are reported from areas where they seemingly do not belong. These birds fall into two categories: laggards and strays. Laggards are members of the accustomed breeding species of an area, which for some unknown reason have failed to fly south with their brethren. Strays are members of species that nest far from the region where they are found. These hummers may have been swept along a wrong path in migration or they may be genetically faulty, that is, lacking the correct inate migrational directions. Correct identification can assign these waifs to the right category.
In many cases, laggards are very young individuals, progeny of a late nesting and they need extra time to put on the additional fat required to fuel their arduous migration. These youngsters may be destined to die, but, feeders with their unlimited supply of nectar may be lifesavers. Removal of a feeder upon which a hummer is dependent (as is so often advised) will ensure its death rather than forcing it to migrate. Usually, an underweight bird continues to search for a feeder until its energy is completely depleted at which time it succumbs to cold, starvation, or becomes easy prey for any opportunistic predator. If several successive days of sub-freezing weather threaten and the hummer has not left on its own, rehab techniques may be necessary.
Often, though, the out-of-place hummer is a stray. Throughout the eastern U.S. (and sometimes Canada), members of the genus Selasphorus, usually Rufous Hummingbirds from the Pacific Northwest, show up as the last of the Ruby-throats is departing. These hummers will be completing a migration of hundreds, if not thousands, of miles when they arrive in Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts. Their energy reserves will likely be depleted from their long-distance flight, though they are far from their species' usual winter range. Continued feeding could help these hummers recoup their strength and move on before the full brunt of winter bears downif the bird is otherwise in good physical condition.
Rufous are more cold-hardy than Ruby-throats. Nighttime temperatures often drop to freezing in the mountainous terrain they call home. Yet, if temperatures will drop below freezing and remain there for several days, energy will be used faster than it can be replaced. Rehab will need to be considered.
A considerable number of hummingbirds spend the winter months in the southeastern U.S., especially in areas near the Gulf of Mexico. Fifteen species have been recorded in the Gulf Coast region in winter and the number of individuals seems to be growing. In this region, winters are generally temperate and most hummers can survive quite well, as returns of banded hummers for up to six consecutive winters are documented.
Exotic gardens and hummingbird feeders surely influence survival rates, but they are not the reason for this phenomenon. More study is needed on the breeding grounds of the individual species and study where the birds ordinarily winter in tropical America might provide answers. Is it habitat loss? Pesticides? Overpopulation? Who knows? Meanwhile, there will always be some hummers lost in America!
Copyright © 1996
Nancy L. Newfield