Rufous Hummingbirds Turning Up in Unusual Places
Is climate change the reason, or are birders just paying closer attention?
Hail, lightning, and gale-force winds had pounded southern Louisiana just hours before in some of the worst weather here since Hurricane Katrina. Untold thousands of birds caught migrating from Central America and Mexico had surely perished in the stormy Gulf of Mexico. But on this spring morning, the Owens yard, just north of New Orleans, is a peaceful and busy haven for the lucky survivors. As a half-dozen humans cradle their coffee cups, a parade of ruby-throated hummingbirds sip sugar water from three feeders set inside cages. Their throats sparkle like Dorothy’s slippers in the clean air. The only sound is the crack of a cage door clanging shut on each unsuspecting captive.
Nancy L. Newfield clutches a modified electronic car key, which triggers the doors by remote control, as she keeps a sharp eye out from her vantage point on a damp picnic bench. She is clearly more Glinda than Wicked Witch of the West, wearing both a white sweatshirt covered in hummingbirds and a satisfied expression. A helper retrieves the hummers she traps; Newfield efficiently bands, measures, and weighs each bird, then promptly sets it free to continue its migration. “Hummingbirds are not particularly delicate—they are easy to handle,” she says casually, pulling an impossibly minuscule band off a diaper pin to prepare for the next bird.
The next hummer, however, evades her experienced grasp, darting in and out of the cage before the door can close. It is a rufous hummingbird, a feisty species long considered unique to areas west of the Great Plains. People long scoffed at the idea that rufouses are showing up more frequently in this warm and wet region. But thanks to decades of work by Newfield and her many protégés, it now seems likely that the species is dramatically expanding its winter range.
That could make the rufous a kind of canary in the coalmine in the controversy over how humans affect the environment. There’s no doubt the Gulf Coast region has changed dramatically in recent years to become far more hummer-friendly. The climate since the 1970s has been generally warmer than in previous decades; hard freezes are fewer and shorter. “I hardly wear winter gear anymore,” says Newfield. At the same time, the sudden and dramatic growth of Southern suburbs—and interest in hummingbirds—has led to a proliferation of feeders and yards filled with plants and flowers, some of which bloom through the milder winters. “We’ve set the table for them,” says Van Remsen, an ornithologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That means the hummingbirds that stay through the season have a better chance for survival—and to return.
Last winter, for example, Newfield banded 26 buff-bellied hummingbirds, six of which were returnees. And these birds were long thought to only rarely stray very far north of the Rio Grande. The implications extend far beyond the small circle of hummingbird experts and the devoted ranks of hummer lovers, who prize this tiny creature for its magical combination of beauty, toughness, and intelligence. The rufous in the Owens yard may be a sign that migrating birds are more flexible than scientists have realized, and that hardier species may be able to adapt successfully to changing climate and habitat.
Newfield is not a trained scientist, but she has spent more than three decades observing hummingbirds, collecting data, and inspiring and training a whole generation to follow suit. That makes her a revered figure in the field, among academics and amateurs alike. “She’s the queen of winter hummingbirds,” says Remsen.
The wife of a Navy man, Newfield left her native Louisiana for a series of posts in other bird-rich areas, from Key West to coastal Virginia. She was already hooked on birds. “I saw a hummingbird when I was nine or 10, and I was fascinated,” she says, without taking her eyes off the cages. “I didn’t know how to identify different ones—and I wanted to know what kind of creature this is.” That curiosity led Newfield to be a central player in what she calls “one of the most exciting discoveries in the state’s ornithological history.”
At first the idea that significant numbers of western hummingbird species could bypass Mexico to spend winter along the distant Gulf Coast was dismissed as nonsense. Such sightings were rejected as false identifications or as occasional anomalies—a bird blown off course or with faulty instincts. “The old-school view was that there might be a few passing through, but that except for a few, they didn’t stay,” says Remsen, who recalls that the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in the area prior to the 1970s might log two or three individual western species.
At the time Newfield was a college dropout with two young kids and a husband who was frequently away on business. But as she learned about hummingbirds, she was surprised to find that even the experts had a hard time distinguishing among the many varieties. “Field guides told us it was impossible to separate female ruby-throated from female black-chinned in the field,” she notes. Such confusion called into question the accuracy of the counts. And those experts also admonished people not to leave feeders out beyond the fall, lest they lure birds to their death by tempting them to postpone migration. Newfield began to have her doubts that feeders would confuse her visitors. “None of us wanted to be responsible for killing hummingbirds,” she says. But her suspicions grew that there was a vast gulf of ignorance concerning the birds’ numbers, their habits, and their winter whereabouts.