For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbird Update
Last week, a western hummingbird turned up in my backyard—it’s the rarest bird I’ve ever added to my yard list. So far, a few dozen birders from throughout Minnesota have been over to see it. “Viola” is probably a Rufous Hummingbird, but there’s a small possibility that she’s an Allen’s hummingbird—we’re trying to get good, clear looks at her individual tail feathers to clinch the identification, but she’s an active little thing who just doesn’t hold still for photos. At first we thought she was an immature male, but we finally got looks and photos of her solid-green back and rump, establishing for sure that she’s female, and the brilliant red feathers concentrated in the center of her throat establish that she’s an adult. I named her Viola after the character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, because she’s intelligent, independent, and feisty, and had everyone tricked into thinking she was a boy for a few days.
Viola first appeared Tuesday, November 16, at my window feeder, which I’d left out just in case a lost little hummer needed a meal, and she has been returning every day since then. She’s very active through the morning and lunchtime, but then packs up and leaves for the day between 1:30 and 2:45.
Earlier last week an adult male Rufous Hummingbird was banded in Berrien County, Michigan, and an immature hummingbird has been spending the season at Niagara Falls on the Ontario side. These little birds are turning up more and more often in eastern North America, and are wintering, or attempting to winter, farther and farther north. I’m sure that most of the ones that spend the season in the central and northern states end up dying, but the ones that survive may be important for the species’ overall survival as their normal wintering grounds in Mexico are steadily deforested. Rufous Hummingbirds nest in Alaska, in the mountains, so they’re certainly accustomed to harsh weather conditions, but a Minnesota winter may be much more than my little bird has bargained for. So I feel a huge burden of responsibility hosting her. There’s an awkwardness about it—the first day she appeared, she was apparently extremely hungry—she probably searched for hundreds of miles before finally finding a feeder. So she spent a great deal of time feeding, and came to the feeders until 2:45 in the afternoon, which is later than she has fed any other day since. By the third day, she had pretty much figured out the neighborhood, and visits every one of the seven feeders I have out for her now. One of the tree feeders is filled with sugar water supplemented with a protein mixture, but so far she’s not shown much interest in it, though she’s visited it twice.
Several well-meaning people have strongly advised me to capture her and move her indoors or to a balmier climate. But that’s both illegal (and the US Fish and Wildlife Service no longer issues permits for capturing hummingbirds in this way) and inhumane—almost all of the hummingbirds captured out of misguided kindness like this have died, because the birds are so easily traumatized by capture. I’m hoping that my feeders will help her get back into good condition, and then she’ll venture forth and finish her migration. It must be scary for her, knowing as she does that it’s a long way south, and in November it’s a long way between feeders. As long as she keeps coming, I’ll keep the warmed sugar water out there for her and the home fires burning.