For the Birds Radio Program: Late Hummingbird

Original Air Date: Oct. 4, 2004 (estimated date)

A late Ruby-throated Hummingbird turned up in Laura’s yard last week.

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Late Hummingbird

Last Friday, October 1, late in the afternoon, a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird appeared at my window feeder. She pigged out for at least two or three minutes, and then flew into my box elder to digest some of the sweet fluid for a few minutes. I didn’t know if she’d be staying or not so I quickly put fresh sugar water in all my feeders, but she had a long journey ahead of her and faith that she’d find food here and there along the way, and off she went. I was thrilled—I’d never before seen a hummingbird in my own yard in October. And I was just as happy that she didn’t stick around. Hummingbirds migrate only on days when their bodies are in tiptop shape, and as days get shorter and colder, nutritious food becomes increasingly difficult to find. As it is, this one probably hatched late, with the cold May and June up here, and got a late start on migration. Now she’s apparently stopping along the way whenever she notices something red that might provide a sip of high-energy carbs to fuel her flight. Adult hummingbirds take off as soon as they can in August or early September so they’ll be sure to find plenty of food along the way and leave enough on their breeding grounds to sustain their little ones until they, too, have built up enough muscle mass for the arduous trip.

A lot of people get nervous about leaving their feeders up this late, fearing that the sugar water will entice the little birds to remain in the north too long. But that is simply not the way hummingbirds are. Ruby-throats have such a powerful instinct to migrate that few are enticed to remain in warm places with luscious hummingbird gardens and feeders galore in southern Louisiana, Texas, or Florida. The vast majority of Ruby-throats winter in Central America, and even the ones that do winter in the southern United States remain pretty much within their historic winter range. After Labor Day, most hummingbirds are gone from the northland. But the stragglers—invariably babies who got a late start—can easily survive as long as they find food along the way. Unless we check our feeders every two or three minutes throughout daylight hours, we really have no idea whether any hummingbirds passing overhead have zipped down for a quick meal. Of course, leaving our feeders out on the off-chance that a hummingbird that we probably won’t even see stops by for a short meal doesn’t give us the payback that we get from our other feeders, but I keep my hummingbird feeders going anyway, as a matter of faith.

Young hummingbirds are now facing different circumstances than their mothers taught them to deal with. They learned all the best places to find food on their territory, and have to extrapolate from that to identify food sources in uncharted areas. They instinctively are drawn to bright colors, especially red, but not all red items produce nectar—when a group of us used to count migrating birds along the North Shore of Lake Superior, my hummingbird counts were highest because I wore a red hat, which drew in immature hummingbirds who hadn’t learned that real flowers are considerably smaller and don’t perch atop someone’s head. Little by little, they either perfect their search pattern or they die.

Once they finally reach their winter range, their lives become very much different than anything they’ve known up here. Suddenly they have to deal with huge spiders, poisonous snakes, and even carnivorous plants. Up here, they have to hold their own against other Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but down in the tropics, they compete with a good dozen other species of feisty little hummers as well. It’s a jungle out there, so it’s surprising how many of our hummingbirds figure out the ropes and succeed despite the dangers. The oldest banded Ruby-throated Hummingbird that was stupid enough to be recaptured lived to be at least nine years and one month old. That little mite flew over the Gulf of Mexico on its own power at least 18 times, and faced every danger north country, the tropics, and places in between could dish out. Not bad for a bird that weighs barely a tenth of an ounce.