Rufous hummingbirds: Rare winter visitors
by Mary Tucker
February 14, 2013 11:43 PM | 1834 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In early April of 2011, my husband noticed an unusual hummingbird at the nectar feeder. He said its back was rusty brown, not the usual green of the ruby-throat. I was also fortunate to see the bird, and I noticed that the throat color was also different from that of the ruby-throat. It appeared either dark brown, fiery orange, or light green, all depending on how the light reflected off it. Checking the bird identification book, we determined that it must be a male rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), which though rare is the most common overwintering hummingbird in Georgia. We got in touch with a local licensed hummingbird bander, who was interested in banding the bird. Unfortunately, we never saw the little guy again, so we assume he was just passing through that spring. In my research on these birds I learned that they breed on the West Coast, from the Pacific Northwest to southern Alaska. They typically overwinter in Mexico, but increasingly they are being seen in the Southeast during the winter months. I’ve heard that the rufous is probably the most cold-tolerant of the hummingbirds, which accounts for the bird being able to withstand the winter temperatures of our region. The rufous hummingbird is named for the reddish-brown (or rufous) back of the adult male. Females and juvenile males are primarily green on the back, with some rusty brown to orange feathers on the tail and sides. In mid-February of 2012, almost a year after our initial sighting, my local Wild Birds Unlimited store emailed its customers to say that a rufous hummingbird had been spotted in our Woodstock neighborhood. We quickly put up our feeder despite the cold temperatures, and he visited us a week or so later. The hummingbird bander was notified, and she was able to catch and band the bird in our neighbor’s yard. It was a juvenile male whose throat feathers were not fully developed, so he was not the older bird we had seen the previous spring. This young bird visited our feeder until late March. Then in mid-October of 2012, we again spotted a male rufous hummer at our nectar feeder and on some of the native plants that were still blooming in our yard, such as trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and annual red salvia (Salvia coccinea). We thought it must be the return of the bird we saw in the spring (just grown up now based on his orange throat), but the bander wanted to verify that. She caught the bird in early December, and we were surprised to find that this was a different, non-banded bird! Of course, she banded him, which was a fascinating procedure to watch. We were afraid he would be hesitant to come back to our yard after that ordeal, but he was back at the feeder within an hour. Though the rufous is the most common winter hummingbird in Georgia, other species are occasionally seen, including black-chinned, calliope, and broad-tailed. According to the Georgia Hummer Study Group website (www.gahummer.org), a total of twelve species of hummingbird have been recorded in Georgia. Knowing that we may be graced with winter hummingbirds, I now keep my nectar feeders up year round. Recently the Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division offered the following advice for keeping nectar feeders from freezing in the winter: “Take the feeder inside at night when temperatures fall below 26 degrees (the 1 part sugar to 4 parts water mix won’t freeze until then); focus a 150-watt outside flood lamp with an ‘alligator’ clip on the feeder during sub-26-degree weather; or wrap the feeder with a 3-foot-long electric heat tape.” Another suggestion I’ve heard is to float a dish-type hummingbird feeder in a heated bird bath. So I encourage you to join me in keeping your hummingbird feeders up during the winter. And if you do see an unusual hummingbird, you can visit the Georgia Hummer Study Group website to report your sighting or to get in touch with a licensed bander. As I write this in late January, this little bird is still with us, and we’ll enjoy his presence until nature calls him back to his breeding ground on the other side of the continent.

Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.
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