For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbird Migration 2005

Original Air Date: Feb. 23, 2005 Rerun Dates: Feb. 28, 2007

This year, Rufous Hummingbird migration is early. Researchers are trying to tease out the complexities of Rufous migration and vagrancy.

Duration: 3′47″


Although it’s only February, hummingbirds are already starting to migrate. The first migrant Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are expected to reach the Gulf Coast about February 25. Rufous Hummingbirds, a bit hardier, usually start arriving in some spots in coastal California by January, but this year they’re ahead of normal. Mike Patterson, an authority on Rufous Hummingbirds who bands and tracks them in Oregon, predicted on January 31 that the first arrivals would be late this yar because of nasty weather to the south. Mike noted that they’d been having record-setting, warm, spring-like weather on the North Coast of Oregon, but that there had been lots of rain in California. He said that the jet stream is tracking farther south than in the usual winter. But birds apparently are more optimistic or have a better track on the weather forecasts in other places than we’re aware of, because barely a week later, on February 8, Mike heard his first Rufous Hummingbird of the season, and noted that this is the earliest Rufous Hummingbird for his yard, going back to 1988, by about 2 weeks.

Rufous Hummingbirds are amazingly hardy little birds, and surprisingly feisty, even for hummingbirds. A few falls ago when I went to New Orleans to observe Nancy Newfield, the world’s most experienced hummingbird bander, we went to a yard where a Rufous Hummingbird had just arrived the day before, and he had taken over some of the feeders, chasing away the bigger Ruby-throats. Nancy told me that this is always the pattern—Rufous Hummingbirds are simply the most aggressive of all the North American hummingbirds. In a family of superlatives, this is one of the most superlative, nesting farther north than any hummingbird, and enjoying more daylight than any other. Mike Patterson has been trying to puzzle through their confusing migration patterns, and another hummingbird bander, Bill Hilton, Jr., from the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in North Carolina, has been keeping track of vagrant hummingbirds wintering in the eastern U.S. for several years. The one thing Mike and Bill have figured out for sure is that we need a lot more research to tease out the many complexities in Rufous Hummingbirds.

I had a Rufous Hummingbird visiting my feeders in November and the beginning of December this year, so I know first-hand how fascinating and how very sturdy they are. I named my little bird Viola, and she survived nighttime temperatures down to 6 degrees, and a couple of very snowy, windy days, before she moved on. On the off-chance that she reappears, I’m going to set out a couple of hummingbird feeders in her favorite windows as soon as we get a few days above freezing. It’s not likely that I’ll ever see her again, but a little optimism never hurt anyone, and even if she never returns, it’ll be nice to be prepared just in case another lost little hummingbird wends its way to my yard ever again.

I’ve put a whole series of links to hummingbird information at