Wild Ideas: Is that a rufous hummingbird at your feeder?

This hummingbird was spotted at a feeder by Northern Neck master naturalist Fawn Palmer. Is it a rufous? Photo ©Fawn Palmer

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.

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 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 planned to do after this column went to press.

According to Hummingbirds.net, the rufous is “the most widely distributed hummingbird in North America” and has even been spotted in Siberia. I found a map at Learners.org that contained the number of sightings along the East Coast as the year progressed.

So why hadn’t I heard about this? The number of rufous in Virginia has “soared” since the late 1980s, according to the Virginia Society of Ornithology’s 2007 “Virginia’s Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist,” but that means from one in 1987 to 13 in 2001. Although its populations continue to increase, the book describes the species as a “rare but increasingly fall transient and winter visitor” throughout Virginia.

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 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, Va. (a few miles south of Richmond) on Nov. 29, 2001. This bird was recaptured near Red Lodge, Mont., in August 2002, and then recaptured again at the same feeder in Chesterfield on Dec. 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 them is why their range has expanded, says Peterjohn.

For banding and collection, Peterjohn encourages those who are feeding rufous hummers to continue through Christmas. However, he says, keeping feeders up after that may mean “you’re stuck feeding them for the winter” if you want the hummers to survive. People are often inclined to do so, he says, making the rufous “a member of their family.”

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 284 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

2 Comments

  1. This is a very interesting and informative article. I am aware of rufous sightings here in the Northeast but they are rare. It seems that the rufous population may continue to expand in the Southeast. That seems to be the trend in regard to hummingbirds in general. Thank goodness for that. In some parts of the world the hummingbird habitat is diminishing and hummingbirds are facing extinction. http://www.hummingbird-guide.com

  2. Just a follow-up on my column: a black-chinned hummingbird was just sighted at a nectar feeder in Pulaski County, Virginia. Fill it and they will come!

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