Rufous Hummingbirds Turning Up in Unusual Places

Rufous Hummingbirds Turning Up in Unusual Places

Is climate change the reason, or are birders just paying closer attention?

By Andrew Lawler
Published: March-April 2010

So in 1979, after returning to Louisiana, Newfield obtained a banding permit and launched what she planned to be a five-year study. There was only one other hummingbird bander within a thousand miles. With the help of ornithologists like Remsen, Newfield learned anatomical terminology and measuring methods. And she experimented with nets and cages to capture the birds. That first winter, working in her own yard after the October departure of the ruby-throated for warmer climes, she banded 10 rufous and nine black-chinned hummingbirds. Since then she has banded thousands more. Over the years many of the banded birds returned. By the mid-1980s Newfield and others had extensive data to show beyond a doubt that several western species were finding good winter homes far from the Mexican hills where they were presumed to stay.

Were there simply more observers like Newfield to see birds that had been there all along? Or was there something new in the wind? "Clearly there's an increase," Remsen says. "I'd bet everything on it." Others, however, are not persuaded. Bob Sargent, a respected hummingbird bander in Alabama who learned his craft from Newfield, thinks that the birds simply went undetected for decades.

The trajectory of western birds like the rufous that show up in winter on the Gulf Coast is still a mystery. Some contend that they work their way east and then south along the Atlantic Seaboard as the push broom of winter sweeps down. Others believe they come down from the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Remsen poses what he calls the "wacko theory," that the birds follow their normal route from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico, then turn left to drift north and east to states like Louisiana. Reports of western species as far north as Massachusetts in the winter only muddy the picture. There's just not enough hard data to prove anyone right--yet.


Made up of some 350 species, the hummingbird family is one of the most diverse groups of birds in the New World. Their colors can dazzle, from the ruby-slipper red of the ruby-throated to the blue-and-green iridescence of the broad-billed. They can be as small as a bee or as large as a mockingbird. But their reputation as ethereal and gentle creatures is at odds with reality, if you listen to the humans who watch them.

"A whole subset of people see hummingbirds in the same category as fairies and angels and other mystical creatures," says Fred Bassett, a burly former fighter pilot who spends much of his time touring the country to band birds. He's particularly drawn to the varieties that summer in the West--especially the rufous, black-chinned, and calliope (only about 20 species traditionally venture north of Mexico). "But they are tough as nails. I've seen them chase people, dogs, and cats." Put out just one feeder in your yard, and a single hummingbird is likely to dominate, aggressively protecting the turf. Some species, like the buff-bellied, seem far from angelic. Says Remsen: "These are not tropical wimps."

The hummingbirds' small size--they typically weigh between three and six grams--is not to be confused with fragility. They flourish in the chilly highlands of the Andes, the tropical lowlands of Central America, the deserts of the American southwest, and the damp chill of the Alaskan coast. Some stay put; others migrate. Some, like the rufous, when they do migrate, fly as far as 5,000 miles from their winter homes to their nesting grounds. Their famously fast metabolism--the fastest of any animal in nature--makes for a constant and voracious appetite that puts a premium on moving. They are expert at snatching flies from spider webs, gorging on swarms of gnats, and of course, sticking their specialized beaks into flowers to suck nectar. One species in the Andes has a beak longer than its body. They have record hovering capabilities, and they can fly forward, backward, sideways, up, down--even upside down.  

A day after the fierce storms have moved out of the Gulf Coast, Bassett is carefully untangling birds from nets on an Alabama barrier island a couple hundred miles east of the Owens yard. It is spring migration, and in the aftermath of the storm the nets are filled with an array of colorful bird species--including the occasional ruby-throated--exhausted from their 12- to 20-hour nonstop flight across the Gulf. He insists--and other hummingbird aficionados agree--that the creatures are not just aggressive; they are also smart. Bassett says that if he has let the feeder in his yard go dry, there are some hummers that will knock angrily against his kitchen window, trying to catch his eye as he gets his morning coffee. "They know who filled it," he says. "And they are as curious about us as we are about them."

But are they smart enough to outwit the potential disruptions posed by human development and a warming climate, threats that range from more ferocious hurricanes to dwindling habitat?

As with most topics concerning hummingbirds, there's more heat than light, in part because each species has its own special relationship to the environment. Rufous populations have fallen by more than half in the past 40 years, from 12 million to 5 million birds, according to Audubon's Common Birds in Decline report, largely as a result of logging and development of their breeding areas in the Pacific Northwest and their wintering grounds in Mexico. But if there is an increase among western species in the eastern United States, as Newfield and Remsen believe, it could be a sign that they are finding alternative migration paths and habitats. Whether that change might be due to more food or a temporary variation in the Gulf Coast climate is unclear.

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Author Profile

Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler lives in rural Maine and contributes to Science Magazine, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and others.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Early hammers

We have had two regular Anna's all winter. We live right outside Seattle, Wa. This last week a Rufous showed up at my window feeder for the first time. It was quite tattered looking and quite hungry as we have very few flowers out yet. I've also has the largest hummingbird come to my back yard feeder that I've ever seen here in the last ten years. It stayed for only a few days and left. The rufous is still with me though along with my Anna's and some others that appear to be in transit as they are all tired and very Hungry. It appears that we are getting some that we have not seen before possibly due to our very mild winter. Not even one frozen feeder this year. We feed all year as we have many that nest in our trees and hanging flower baskets and several usually stay for the winter as well, as we have good hiding places for them to view their feeders.

Rufous in Greater Atlanta

I have had the joy of "hosting" rufous hummingbird(s) for at lest the last three years. I live just north of Atlanta and they show up around November and as of today 3/21/13 one is still here. My neighbor also keeps feeders out year 'round. I expect he will move on soon and will be replaced by our Ruby-throated.

Hummingbirds Can Surprise You

I've had the great pleasure for over 15 years to be acquainted with virtually all of the individuals mentioned in this article plus Allen Chartier who bands fair numbers of birds at our home in Michigan every year. You can never be sure what kind of hummingbird will arrive at your feeders/flowers. In 2005, we had a White-eared Hummingbird visit for several days - in Michigan. This species is expected in the mountains of Mexico, hardly in semi-rural Michigan.


I have had a rufous hummingbird at my house in South Williamson, KY since October 26, 2012. There were numerous times when I thought that she couldn't survive the severe wintry weather. But, then she would appear at the feeder when the temperature was 14 degrees. My husband and I rotated feeders, bringing one indoors and taking another one out, so there was always one that wasn't frozen. Recently she has been feeding at the Oregon Holly blossoms. Plus several other flowers are now available. Our friend, Brainard Palmer-Ball from Louisville came to our house and banded the little female on Dec. 2, 2012.

Allen's Hummingbirds

I wonder if the Rufous hanging around Marco's house in Buena Park could be an Allen's. I live in northeast Fullerton and have lots of Allen's - or what I have always thought were Allen's because of their small size.

Hummingbirds/general comments

As a lifelong resident of Ohio and admirer of hummingbirds I find it interesting to note the changes in their migratory habits. But one need only look at the Canadian Goose to know that something has been going on for some time with regards to climate. As a boy growing up in the 1960's I cannot recall seeing these birds during the winter. But sometime within the last 15 or 20 years, some of them at least, started staying behind during the winter months. Milder winters perhaps?
Back to the topic of hummingbirds, I just wondered if anyone else has ever seen this or knows anything about it. I've kept at least of couple of feeders out for them for as long as I can remember. One day about ten years ago I was watching the feeder and I noticed a couple of paper wasps supping at it when along came a hummingbird. As it approached the feeder the wasps rose from it ominously, like they do, and confronted the bird. Discretion being the better part of valor, the hummingbird decided it had best find a meal elsewhere and promptly left. While I don't know it to be fact I would have to imagine that wasps are quite capable of killing a hummingbird having been stung by them on several occasions myself, and I was glad the bird moved on.

wasp / hummiers.......

wasp in e-texas also run of humming birds...

Canada Geese

The reason for the "Canada" Geese over-wintering is explainable. Humans have set up perfect habitats for them to take up permenant residence. They have adapted to our parks, golf courses, and agriculture practices. States have made efforts to slow down the migration so their hunters could harvest birds before they headed to their wintering areas by planting and flooding fields, No reason to fly south when everything they need is available.

Hummingbirds in strange places

Growing up in upstate NY we saw hummers by the thousands, but since moving to Illinois 50 years ago I can almost count all I've seen on my fingers.


Yes, I know. I have seen a Rufous hanging around my home in Buena Park, CA...I have a bottlebrush tree that a Anna's uses for her nest, but have seen this smaller species since end of fall early winter. Although I haven't seen it for a couple of weeks now.

The Anna's are battling for mates; found a dead one in my yard above the bottlebrush tree.

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