- Operation Ruby Throat: http://www.rubythroat.org/
- Hummingbird Research, Inc.: http://www.hummingbirdresearch.net/p282.html
- Southeastern Avian Research: https://southeasternavianresearch.org/hummingbirds/
- Report a bird band: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/bblretrv/
- Hummer’s Heated Delight: https://hummersheateddelight.com
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Intro: Did you know that some hummingbirds will overwinter in the eastern U.S.? These aren’t our normal ruby throated hummingbirds that visit our feeders and yards all summer long. These are often western species of hummingbirds, like the rufus hummingbird.
Winter hummingbirds aren’t common, and they become less common the further you are from the southern coastal plains; however, they aren’t unique either. I can tell you from personal experience that it is SOOOO much fun to host one if you’re lucky enough to have one show up on your property.
Shannon: Hi Everyone! Before we get started, I want to thank all our supporters on Patreon. Each month, they go above and beyond to financially contribute towards making the Backyard Ecology blog, podcast, and YouTube channel possible.
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If you’re listening to this in November 2023, I would also like to ask you for a favor. We’re conducting an end-of-the-year survey that we’ll use to guide our plans for 2024’s Backyard Ecology content and programs. This is your chance to tell us what topics you would like to hear more about and share any feedback you have with us. I’ll have a link in the show notes to the survey.
I originally recorded this conversation with Brainard Palmer-Ball in the fall of 2021. The topic of winter hummingbirds in the eastern U.S. is such a fun topic. And I don’t think a lot of people know that there is even the possibility of having a hummingbird visit your yard at this time of year. So, I thought I would reshare it with the transcript so that those who missed it the first time or who prefer to read the transcripts can enjoy it too.
Brainard is a retired zoologist from the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves. Hi Brainard. Welcome to Backyard Ecology. Thank you for talking with us today.
Brainard: Thanks, Shannon. Appreciate it.
Shannon: I’m really excited about this conversation because hummingbirds are always fun to talk about. And we’re going to be talking about some hummingbird behaviors that a lot of people may not know about, which is always fun to do.
But before we get started, let’s just take a couple of minutes to tell everyone a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Brainard: Well, I grew up on a farm in suburban Louisville where I got interested in birds and that took me into graduate school at University of Louisville back in the 80s. I ended up getting a master’s degree that got me a job in state government in Kentucky. And I was there for my entire career, about 24 years.
Birds have always been my greatest interest, but also living on the family farm, I got exposed to a lot of other things too and got interested in all kinds of things. So, birds have probably continued to be one of my best interests.
Other than that, I’m just these days in retirement, kind of running our family farm, trying to keep it green space for as long as I can and trying to figure out what to do with it after that.
Shannon: Yes, you are an expert birder and bird bander and anybody in Kentucky that works in the natural resources fields knows you because you’ve done so much with that.
Brainard: Yeah, I generally say I’ve spent way too much of my life birdwatching and trying to find out stuff about birds here. I’m kind of provincial and I get a little bit of a reputation for that.
I want to birdwatch in Kentucky. I’ll go outside the state occasionally, but we have so few people here relative to other states that I like finding out more and more about birds here in Kentucky. So, I do stay here most of the time.
Shannon: Well, we’ve got such cool birds here and we don’t always appreciate what we have in our yards and in our local communities in our state. That’s part of why I started backyard ecology is to really raise that appreciation, whether it’s for us here in Kentucky or whether it’s for our listeners who are in Georgia looking at their state or New Jersey looking up there in their state.
Everybody has that mindset that all the cool stuff is in other states or other parts of the world. So yeah, I completely get and appreciate your love of the Kentucky birds and wanting to learn more about those.
Brainard: Right. You know, it’s funny. For years I was on our local Audubon board, and we always sent kids, or we tried to sponsor kids, to go to Audubon ecology camps.
In my schooling and work, I was exposed to all kinds of neat aquatic creatures in the streams and ponds and plants. You know, all types of different habitats, in addition to birds. And I always thought to myself, you know, why are we sending these kids way off to Maine to an ecology camp when I’ve seen stuff just as neat here?
I’ve never followed up with that or tried to get that off the ground, but I really think that kids in the next generations could be just as easily spurred to be interested in wildlife conservation by just paying more attention to what’s here – locally.
Shannon: Oh, I agree. So often all the kids’ books and stuff about wildlife are focused on giraffes and zebras and lions and tigers. Those are all cool and interesting, but so are the Carolina wrens, and the red shouldered hawks, and the Eastern tiger swallowtails, and the salamanders that we have in our ponds and our creeks. And oh my gosh, there’s just so many cool, fun things.
Brainard: Yeah, definitely.
Shannon: So, bringing it back to our hummingbird conversation… Here in the eastern US when we talk about hummingbirds, we’re typically talking about the ruby throated hummingbirds.
We think that when we want to see lots of different species of hummingbirds, we have to go somewhere else – farther south and west. So, the closer to the tropics you get, the greater the hummingbird diversity. And that’s true, they do have way more diversity down there than we have here in the eastern U.S.
In the eastern U.S., our only breeding species is the ruby throated hummingbird. They tend to show up, here in Kentucky at least, in April. Then they’ll migrate back to Central America in the fall where they spend the winter. Of course, farther south, they’re going to show up earlier than they do in Kentucky farther north it’s going to be a little bit later. That’s kind of what we think about for hummingbirds here in the eastern U.S.
But there’s few absolutes in nature, and we’re constantly learning more and making new discoveries. That includes the fact that, not all of our hummingbirds go to Central America for the winter. And in the eastern U.S. we even get western species overwintering, which is really cool!
I think I first learned about all this… oh, probably 11-12 years ago, something like that. It just was something I’d heard about being involved in natural resources and the birding community. It was back there in the back of my mind that, oh yeah, some hummingbirds overwinter in the eastern U. S. But then about 10 years ago, almost exactly 10 years ago because it was November of 2011, I got to become part of the story and learn about this firsthand.
It was a gorgeous fall day, and we had the windows open. My husband and I were sitting on the couch in the living room and suddenly we both looked up because we’d heard something. We’re kind of looking at each other and looking at the window… and there was a hummingbird!
It was checking out my drapes, because they were red drapes in the living room, as if it was trying to figure out what this big red flower was and how did it get nectar from it. My husband and I are both wildlife biologists. So, we both got really excited because we knew this was something interesting. This was one of those wintering hummingbirds that we’d heard about but never seen.
So, immediately we dug out the hummingbird feeder again, made sugar water, and got the hummingbird feeder up. We also let the Kentucky Ornithological Society know and you came down. You caught our hummingbird, banded it, and identified it as a female Rufus. We got to host it for the entire winter, which was so much fun!
We were putting out a hummingbird feeder all winter long. On the really cold nights, I’d bring it in and get it back out again before the sun even came up so that she’d have her food when she wanted it. I got those old Christmas lights that still put out the heat and wrapped it all around the shepherd’s hook that we had the feeder on so that it had a little bit more heat there to keep the hummingbird water from freezing.
And this was all when we lived in the middle of town. So our neighbors already thought we were crazy, but that just completely confirmed it – that we had this hummingbird feeder up with Christmas lights on it all winter long. But it was so much fun watching her and to be a part of that story.
I’ve watched for them ever since then but haven’t seen another one. We’ve moved since then and we haven’t seen one at the new location either. But that was just really, really fun. And so that’s a lot of what we want to talk about today is those overwintering hummingbirds, what to look for, and what to do if we find them.
So, my first question for you is just how common is it to have hummingbirds overwintering in the eastern U.S.?
Brainard: Well, the answer to that question has kind of changed over the years. When I first started birdwatching in the mid 1970s, not only did we not really think of hummingbirds being around in the winter, there wasn’t hardly anybody feeding hummingbirds. There were a few people that were doing it, but hummingbird feeding hadn’t really caught on.
I guess it was the late 80s, 90s when people started to really feed hummingbirds. Now when I drive through the rural landscape in Kentucky, I bet I can find a hummingbird feeder at one out of every, well, maybe not one out of every five homes, but not too much beyond that.
And that has kind of changed our picture of what’s around.
It’s thought that these hummingbirds used to winter, but we never saw them. Now that a lot of people have feeders up, and a lot of these more interesting species come in before or about the time that our ruby throats depart in October, that we’re just we’re seeing more of it now.
Back in the 70s, I would have said we never had them. Now we see that they’re around because people have feeders out. The birds find the feeders and the feeder becomes a main source for its carbohydrates during the fall and winter. We see in Kentucky anywhere from one or two in the late fall and winter to maybe as many as 10 or 12.
Now that’s at the latitude that Kentucky is at. Farther north, there’s generally fewer. As you go south towards the Gulf Coast, there’s more and more. Some yards in the Gulf Coast states will have 10 or 12 hummingbirds wintering there. So, the numbers increase as you go south. Also, the East Coast is a little bit more moderate in temperature than points to the west at the same north south latitude.
And so there tend to be a few more that winter along the coast and farther north on the coast too, simply because of the milder weather. So… It’s always special, but it’s now a pattern that you kind of, you pretty much expect some to be around.
Now, the question also is how long do they stay? Kentucky is on the fall migratory route of some of these things. They’re on their way to the East coast or the Gulf Coast, and we may only see them for a few days or a month while they’re molting or something like that. That causes ‘em to kind of linger. But once a bird comes in about the time that yours showed up in November, a lot of times they’re kind of thinking, okay, this is where I’m supposed to stay for the winter.
So if we get them in November, especially the females, those birds tend to try to stay. And so as far as the number that have spent the entire winter in Kentucky, and those often stay until mid March to mid April and then leave, we’ve had six or eight now that have made it through the entire winter.
But I must say that in Kentucky, we do have a harsh enough winter, that it definitely challenges the birds at some point during the winter. That’s usually obviously during January or February. So we have a lot more records of birds in the fall into the early winter. Some of them do just stay for a while and move on before we get cold weather. But others linger through the winter like the six or eight that we’ve documented now.
Shannon: Mine, I think if I remember correctly, disappeared sometime in February and it was when it got really cold. We’d already had several cold spells but that was another cold spell, and it disappeared sometime then. We were never sure whether it moved further south to where it was a little bit warmer, or whether it didn’t make it after that.
Brainard: Now, I’m looking at your report, Shannon. I’m checking your memory. And I see that you first noticed it on the 30th of October. Okay. And the last date that you reported it was the 26th of March. The following spring…
So, yours is one of the few that’s actually made it through the winter. The 26th of March is a normal time for them to be leaving because it’s warm enough that’s when they start migrating away. Occasionally, you know, they do disappear during the cold snaps, and we never know exactly what happens to them.
We’ve had a few band recoveries of birds, astonishingly, that leave an area like Kentucky in mid January, mid February, when it’s really, really cold. And the bird has showed up with the band, which is one reason we try to document movements, down south. So, they have gone south and found a feeder. Some probably perish in those cold snaps, but yours was one that made it into late March.
So it obviously was fine. And when it left, that was the beginning of its spring migration back up to Northwest Canada or Alaska, which is where, most of these rufous hummingbirds come from.
Shannon: I’m glad you looked that up because my memory was off on that, but that’s why we keep records. I should have gone back and looked at mine a little bit better, but I was like, Oh, I remember it. Yeah…. But yeah, that’s why it’s always so important to document what you’re seeing and when you’re seeing it and where you’re seeing it and to keep those good written records.
I remember growing up and in high school and college, I was taught much like you hummingbirds, they’re not here in the winter. If we have a rare one show up, it’s just lost or confused or something like that. But we’re learning that’s probably not true. Is that correct?
Brainard: That’s right. So, most birds that are migratory are kind of programmed to go.
Nobody knows exactly how it is innate in the birds. But these young birds that are hatched in the summer, they have some sort of innate ability to go to a place for the winter. The migratory ones go to a place for the winter that most other members of their species go.
So ruby throated hummingbirds, our hummingbirds, you just don’t see them here in the winter because all the young ones and the adults, they’ve all gone south and they all go down to southern Mexico and Central America.
And there’s occasional ones that do make a mistake. I’ve seen a ruby throated hummingbird in Kentucky in early January before. We never know if those birds are maybe not healthy enough to migrate and they just linger, or there’s something incorrect in their wiring and that they think they’re supposed to stay. For whatever reason, natural selection obviously takes precedent there. And a ruby throated hummingbird that typically tries to stay the winter in Kentucky isn’t going to have food and it’s going to die. And so the innate, behavior to go to where they should be going is reinforced by natural selection.
But so in the Eastern United States, most all of the oddball hummingbirds are these western rufous hummingbirds that actually breed mostly in northwestern Canada and Alaska. So the birds are programmed to go a certain direction, and probably a certain length of either time or mileage. We’re not quite sure what that determining factor is. But the thought is that some of these rufous hummingbirds are going, say, 2,000 miles southeast into the southeastern United States instead of 2,000 miles south into Mexico and Central America. They end up migrating about the same distance over about the same time, but they just end up in the eastern or southeastern U.S.
Now the thought is that there have been some of them that have been able to survive in warmer climates, you know, closer to the Gulf Coast. But then, you know, humans settled the landscape and we put all kinds of ornamental flowers out that can serve as a food source if they don’t get frozen. So that’s another thing that reinforces the birds coming to the southeast.
Then, as I said, over the past 30, 40 years, more and more people have been putting out feeders that supply a carbohydrate source of energy for the birds. But of course they need more than carbohydrates to survive the winter. They also have to have insects to get proteins, amino acids, and all the other things that they need. So they’re constantly finding insects through the winter. Which in Kentucky they can do, you know, in protected places, south sides of brick homes and things like that, vegetation… They can just go around and pick around and find stuff.
So, the birds are not lost. They’re doing something that is programmed into them. It’s possible that humans, by providing the artificial food source of the sugar water, might be encouraging this trend. But the notion that they’re lost is not correct.
They are coming here. When your bird showed up at your feeder, your feeder didn’t make it come to Kentucky. You know, something else made it come to Kentucky, and that was its innate response to migrate.
The feeder may encourage birds to stay to some extent, but we really don’t know to what extent. It’s a really hard subject to try to study – to figure out what would cause a bird to stay, you know, whether that would be a bank of flowers or a feeder or whatever. The feeders may or may not encourage the birds to stay through winter, but they certainly allow the birds to stay the winter and survive because the feeders provide the carbohydrates they need. They’re at the feeders a lot in the winter.
There was a bird in Louisville one winter, not too far outside of urban Louisville, that I went to see a couple times in January. And even in January, when it was really, really cold, that bird would only come to the feeder like every 30 to 45 minutes. And it obviously was really well adjusted to the cold temperatures. It must have had sapsucker wells at a maple tree or something somewhere else where it was getting carbohydrates. But that bird survived the winter and did real well. So, they can do it.
And if they come this far, as I say, not being lost, they are coming here, having been programmed in some way to come here. Now, with genetics, it could be that the birds that come southeast, if we are helping with survivability of the birds, if natural selection is not removing birds that end up somewhere cold in the winter, it could be that genetically there are more and more birds that are tending to come southeast because they’re surviving better.
So that could be something a little bit artificial in the trend, but they’re certainly not lost to go back to answer your immediate question.
Shannon: And that brings up some other interesting questions for me because my hummingbird was not attracted to my feeder because my feeder had been down for weeks.
Brainard: That’s right.
Shannon: We only found it because it was hovering right next to the living room window that we happen to be sitting next to with the windows open, and it was trying to get to my red curtains. Obviously, it had to be flying around the area to see my red curtains. That wasn’t going to attract them from any distance.
But if having the feeders out is allowing them to stay, which is potentially then changing the genetics. Is it a bad thing for us to put the feeders back up again when we find these overwintering hummingbirds?
Brainard: That’s, that’s a question that we all struggle with, and the answer that I always tell people is no.
First of all, it’s kind of funny, you’re reminding me that your bird when I first came down there was not wanting to come to your feeder very much. And I remember walking around your neighborhood looking for another feeder that it might be at. So, it probably was attracted to some food source in the area. It wasn’t initially your feeder, but then when it found your feeder that was stocked with really nice fresh sugar water, it finally started coming all the time.
So, we wrestle with this with all kinds of birds. Like, in the wintertime, we have lots of birds that come to feeders that breed up in Canada and the northern U. S. They come down to Kentucky, and all over the east in the winter. And some of them are quite nice. It would really be nice to keep one around, right?
And you may have a red breasted nuthatch that’s coming to your feeder. It bred up in Canada, then came down to Kentucky. It’s been feeding on sunflower seeds at your feeder all winter long. Boy, it sure would be nice to keep that red breasted nuthatch around for the summer, right? But you can have as many sunflowers as you want out, and the red breasted nuthatch is not going to stay.
And with ruby throateds, for example, you can keep your feeder out for as long as you want. And you may have 20 or 30 ruby throated hummingbirds come into your feeder. But how many times do you leave the feeder out and you ever have one stay? Hardly, hardly ever. So, they’re programmed to move despite having a food source.
So, I don’t think that the feeder is a bad thing. As a matter of fact, we’ve all thought, hummingbird researchers and banders and all the people that think about these kind of things…. we do have some ruby throated hummingbirds that are hatched late and there are also some that may not be in the best of health – they may have an injury, something like that. And we always feel like these birds that linger are probably really utilizing the feeders, and the feeders are really helping them out. So, we all advocate leaving the feeders out to help the ruby throated until they leave.
Now what happens is occasionally a rufus hummingbird finds it before the winter has really come. And so the question is, what do you do?
I have kind of migrated myself into what I tell people now is that if they have a hummingbird, and I’m answering these questions mostly for rufus hummingbirds but there’s a few other western species that show up.
We’ve not had many of them at all in Kentucky, but surrounding states have had other western species like black chinned hummingbirds, Allen’s hummingbird, calliope hummingbird, broad tailed hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird. These are some other western species that occasionally show up in the East. Rufous is 10 to 1 more common than anything else. So, I kind of answered a lot of your questions with Rufous in mind.
I didn’t have this thought 10 years ago when you had yours but nowadays I’m pretty adamant about this. Nowadays, what I tell hosts is, “We’re going to have a period in the winter in Kentucky that’s going to challenge these birds.” And I sometimes worry more about the hosts and their anxiety about their little babies. You know how that was, checking on your bird every day, making sure the feeder was out before sunup.
So, if they have a rufous hummingbird that’s coming in November and if they’re going to go on a big vacation during the winter or if they think that this is going to be a lot of anxiety for them worrying about the hummingbird making for the winter, then I tell them that they should probably just take their feeder down. That Rufus hummingbird will find another place to find carbohydrates. Now, the only problem with that is it could be just the neighbor’s feeder and it doesn’t really change anything. Or it could be a feeder a couple miles away that we wouldn’t know about.
But, if they do decide to keep a feeder up, and if they have a hummingbird show up in November, December, before it gets really cold, then I make sure that I tell them, you know, once it gets to be real winter and we’ve had a really hard freeze and all the other flowers are gone, and the bird is coming to your feeder daily, it’s survival is probably going to be dependent on you during a period in January and February.
So, if you’re going to be off on vacation or you don’t think you’re going to want to be real careful about making sure that it has a food source, then you should probably take it down. Because the food sources of the feeder are definitely critical to the survival at our latitude. Now, further south, the birds can probably make it better without an artificial food source. But even points north… I have associates who have banded these things up in Michigan during the winter. It’s really cold there so the feeder is really critical.
So, back to the initial question of leaving the feeder up. We all leave the feeders up and make sure the ruby throateds are gone. Occasionally somebody will get one of these, probably a rufous hummingbird, show up.
Sometimes these days people google it on the internet and they kind of know what to do. I had one bird in northern Kentucky one year that I didn’t even hear about until February just because I happened to meet the people in-person and they said “Oh, we’ve got a hummingbird come to our feeder.” So sometimes people figure out what to do about these by googling it.
One thing I have for people that run into these in Kentucky, I have accumulated about five heated feeders. These plug in and they have a light, kind of like your Christmas lights, that go underneath the feeder inside a black encasing bottom. And I loan these out because as you said you’ve been looking for a rufus hummingbird again for 10 years and you haven’t had one. Well, most everybody doesn’t.
So, I worked with the folks that have the heated feeders and they actually donated a few to me – very nice for them to do that – to pass around. I think Hummer Heated Delight is the brand of feeder and they were real nice to provide me some loaners to pass around to people.
And what I do is loan them out to people. I loaned four of them out last year and the people just keep them until the hummingbird departs and I’ll retrieve it somehow. Then next year I’ll have a heated feeder for somebody else to use on loan. We have a few people in Kentucky that have had one a second time, but most everybody just has this happen once to them, you know, where they need something like this.
Shannon: Yes, that is excellent to have that option there. And yes, thanks to them for that. But you said Michigan. They can go up as far as Michigan and over winter?
Brainard: Yeah, they’ve had a few. I mean, harsh winters claim the lives of all kinds of wildlife – birds, mammals, everything. So, there’s lots of different things that can happen to a hummingbird that tries to winter in the eastern U. S. A lot of that is stress related to cold. So obviously, the farther north you get, the fewer are going to survive or maybe even try to survive the winter. So, there’s not a lot. And some of the reports that they get are in the fall. And some of them are these birds that travel farther south.
I’ve now captured three rufous hummingbirds that have already been banded. That’s kind of like the holy grail for banders. We put bands on the birds, like yours – I put a band on it. And what we hoped for was that somebody would find it somewhere else, record the number, and we’d have learned something about that. With banding, it doesn’t happen very often. So, it’s always really neat when it happens. And I’ve now caught three.
They’ve all been in the fall. Two of them had been banded previously by associates of mine down on the Gulf Coast. So, we know that those birds are on their way there, but they both were banded the previous winter, so they had been banded down there. They went up to their breeding grounds, probably in Alaska or Canada, and were on their way back to those places. In biology, we have a term for that called site fidelity.
Birds are really well known for having a real high incidence of site fidelity, which is they return to the same place to breed in the summer, or they return to the same place in the winter to spend the winter months. There’s a lot that don’t, but there’s a high degree that do. And it’s always astonishing that they have these GPS systems in their brains that allow them to do that.
But one year we had, just south of Glasgow at Barren River Lake, we had two rufous hummingbirds in the same yard. The next winter, one of them came back to that same yard. The other one came back to a yard about 20 miles north of there. So that bird didn’t quite navigate right back to the exact same spot, but it found a feeder 20 miles from where it had been. And, they successfully wintered a second time. Well, actually the first one wintered three different times in Kentucky and the other one twice. So that’s pretty cool kind of stuff.
I actually didn’t catch the bird that was 20 miles north again. I took photographs of it at the feeder and was able to see the band number in a variety of photographs. So I was able to just confirm who it was by photographs. And you can do that because on the little bands that we put on their legs there’s a letter and five numbers that wraps all the way around the legs.
The bands are free on the legs so they don’t cut circulation off or anything but they’re exactly made to a tolerance of two tenths of a millimeter for the different species. Bigger hummingbirds requiring bigger bands. So, they stay on the leg but they’re not tight and the bands kind of roll around on their leg a little bit. Sometimes it takes three or four pictures to get the whole sequence of letter and five numbers, but it’s doable if you have the ability to take good close pictures of the hummingbird.
Shannon: Yeah, I’m very impressed that you were able to read the band number and get it because I’ve handled hummingbirds before. I know how tiny they are. I also know how tiny the bands are on songbirds and trying to read those when they’re right up close. I’m impressed that you could do it on a hummingbird, which is even tinier, with the camera.
But that just reminded me, we’re talking a lot about capturing and banding these birds. We’re both familiar with the process, but I want to say most people probably aren’t. So, can you explain that a little bit? What’s the process for capturing and banding a hummingbird?
Brainard: Sure. Well, there’s probably, I’m not quite sure the number, but there’s probably a hundred or so people who have federal permits to band hummingbirds from the USGS federal government. You have to go through a special training to do it. I did the training about 15 years ago. And it involved learning to handle the birds, learning how to safely trap the birds, learning how to safely put the bands on, taking measurements so that we can document different things about the different species. And then also another part of it is making the bands.
All of this is real specialized because hummingbirds are so small, and the whole banding process is kind of different. The whole, enterprise of banding hummingbirds is a little bit different than banding even songbirds or waterfowl, whatever, bigger birds. The bands have to be the right exact size or it could injure the birds by being too tight or too wide so that it might rub on the toes or something. So, there’s a lot of oversight by the federal government to make sure that people are doing it properly. And we go through some training to learn how to do it.
The process itself is that you have to capture them somehow. That’s why the number of banders is a little bit weird because there are about 100 people permitted to band hummingbirds. But maybe half or so of them are people who band songbirds but they want to be able to band the hummingbird if they catch it. So, they’re kind of banding hummingbirds just coincidental doing their other projects.
There’s 50 to 75 people who are pretty dedicated hummingbird banders in the United States and various people do different projects. Some people are working with individual species. Some people are just doing banding at a station where there’s a lot of migrants going through trying to catch a lot of different birds of different species.
Then there’s some like me. I mostly band for educational purposes and then also to try to document these rare winter birds in Kentucky. There’s quite a few people that do just that – aren’t really doing big specific projects or projects on individual species. But all of us do about the same thing.
We have to have a way to catch them. Some people catch them in nets where they fly into a net. Which is not a net like a butterfly net. It’s strung up across a path, so the birds as they fly down the path they hit this vertical net and they’re caught in it. Then we take them out. But most people are using a variety of different types of traps.
The traps are all dependent on the hummingbird being smart enough to figure out how to get into the trap. The reason the bird has gone into the trap is there’s a feeder inside the trap. So, the bird wants to get to the feeder and finds the hole that it can get into the feeder. Then it doesn’t find how to get out or we close the door behind it. Then we get it out. And we, transfer them over to a station where we do the banding.
All of us do about the same thing. The first thing we want to do is get the band on. We need to identify the species. And, you know, if I’m just working with a ruby throat in the East, that’s easy. I have to pay particular attention to anything I’m banding in the wintertime because there’s a lookalike to the rufous hummingbird. It’s much rarer, but it does show up in the East. It’s called the Allen’s Hummingbird. So, we’re always looking at the identification for sure.
And we get this little band on it that we have formed. The bands come, in strips and they’re made out of aluminum. They’re very small, as you were saying earlier, but we cut them to length. As I said, they have to be cut to a tolerance of two tenths of a millimeter. That means that the length of the bands is going up two tenths of a millimeter at a time, depending on what species from a small species of hummingbird to a larger species of hummingbird that’s being banded.
Then we have a special tool that forms what’s essentially a little tab of aluminum into a round ring that we can then open up, place on the bird’s leg, and then close it back down. So that’s what we’re doing with the majority of the birds. Obviously, the first thing we do is look for a band. And if the holy grail shows up and we have a bird with a band on it already, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Once the band is on, we typically do some standard measurements. We usually weigh them. and then we release them. The whole process typically takes less than five minutes. The birds are probably, you know, stressed a little bit, but obviously whenever you’re putting bands on something to study something about their life history, you don’t want to injure the bird or have anything abnormal happen. Our goal is to treat the bird as gently as we can, get the band on, take the measurements, and then let it go. So as soon as possible, it can resume normal life and teach us something about its life history.
The things that we most commonly find out about hummingbirds, and all birds that we band or any other wildlife that’s marked in some way, is we’re trying to find out little bits of their life history. Hummingbirds are so small that the band is really the only tool we have for identifying birds and how far they move or how long they live.
Listeners may have heard of a lot of the radio transmitters that are on big things like bald and golden eagles these days and certain water birds that transmit information to satellites daily and you can tell where a bird is. The hummingbirds are too small for that. The weight of any marker or tool for identification that you put on a bird has to be a very tiny percent of its weight, so it doesn’t alter the birds’ behavior because that would defeat the purpose.
So, with hummingbirds the best we can hope for it that somebody will recover the band and we’ll get a piece of information out of it. The most common pieces of information that we get out of it are how long they live. We know that ruby throated hummingbirds can live nine years because a band was put on a bird nine years before it was recaptured somewhere and the band was read. And so, we know age or longevity of birds through banding because you can identify certain individuals though their band numbers.
We can also tell where they moved. We know that ruby throated hummingbirds, if people go looking for ruby throated hummingbirds in the winter, you find a whole lot in Guatemala and Central America and Southern Mexico. So we know they’re there, but there have now been a few recoveries of birds banded in North America down on the wintering grounds. Also, the timing of the routes of migration can occasionally be told with recoveries of bands along the migratory route. Also, how quickly these things happen sometimes.
It’s kind of amazing how quickly the bird can get from point A to point B. And you once again only determine that because you know the bird was banded on a certain day then somebody else recaptures it a week later, 500 miles south, that kind of thing. So that’s pretty much the banding in a nutshell. And so, when we band our birds, we record the data. We then have to annually transmit that data to the federal government.
There’s a centralized database of all the band numbers. So, if anybody finds a bird or a bander recaptures a bird, There used to be a phone number, but now it’s obviously an internet website that you can go to. I think if you google bird band, the first thing that comes up is the USGS website to turn in a band number and there they can feed it into the database and know where and when that bird was banded.
So that’s kind of the full circle of banding. And as I say, there are people doing a variety of projects. There’s several dozen people that are working with these winter hummingbirds all across the US. There’s a couple of websites that have lists of banders by state that I think we can mention at one point.
Shannon: Well, let’s go ahead and bring that up now. We’re recording this in the fall of 2021. We still have quite a few hummingbirds around, These are just the regular old normal hummingbirds doing their normal migration thing.
When should we start thinking about having something different, possibly a wintering hummingbird, or when should we get excited about something like this, if we find a hummingbird in our yards?
Brainard: Well, for the Rufous Hummingbird, which has kind of been the focal point of most of my discussion, the adult males migrate before the females and young of all the hummingbirds. And the adult males have already been going through. We’ve had a site record of one in Kentucky as early as late July. August is very common.
I actually banded an adult male Rufous Hummingbird in Bullitt County, Kentucky, south of Louisville, a few weeks ago. A lot of times those adult males that are early like this only stay a day or two. I caught one in Garrett County a couple years ago that was one of the ones that had been banded by a friend in Louisiana, the previous winter. So, the adult male rufus hummingbirds, which are these bright reddish brown birds with a coppery red throat and don’t look anything like the ruby throateds, they can show up anytime during August or September. I just had photos of another one sent to me a couple of weeks ago that was seen in Shelby County, Kentucky at the end of August or early September for a few days.
Some of them show up before the ruby throateds leave, but a lot of times people don’t notice them because they’re immature rufous hummingbirds that don’t look that different from a ruby throated. When people finally notice them is when all those ruby throateds, that you mentioned that are around right now, finally leave.
In October, ruby throated hummingbirds used to be pretty uncommon in Kentucky. Now it’s not uncommon at all to have them into the first two weeks of October. But that’s about the time that all the ruby throateds are clearing out and going south. And nowadays, it’s pretty much standard for a few to linger in October. But in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, if you get that in the late October to early November range, then it starts to become much more possible that it’s something else. And, definitely by mid November. It’s probably going to be a rufous hummingbird and not a lingering ruby throated anymore.
As I said, the immatures of the rufous look different than ruby throateds. But they are similar enough that if you’re looking from inside in your darker house, looking out at the light, and you’re not getting much on colors, then they can look pretty similar. Shape and size wise, they’re quite similar. So, you know, anything in November is really interesting. Mid November on is definitely probably not a ruby throated.
Now, the caveat to all that is, that some of these other oddities can show up any time of the year, really. There’s a Central American hummingbird called the Mexican violet ear. It’s a big green thing that has a lot of blue in the throat and a blue ear patch around the ear. They actually show up in July and August more than any other time. So, you never know. Obviously, fall is the time when we notice most of them, and it’s about the time the ruby throated are leaving.
So, what I said earlier… we all leave our feeders out, we all keep the sugar water fresh, and eventually all your ruby throateds are going to leave. I mean, out of all your listeners, maybe one will have a ruby throated stay, and it’s probably because it’s not healthy. And then… Maybe another listener will get an actual rufous hummingbird in November, December. It’s all a numbers game.
But we do leave our feeders out and keep the sugar water fresh. Then a few of us keep them out all winter. But of course, if you don’t have a heated feeder, it’s freezing and thawing. But you just never know.
I have a friend that had one start coming to his feeder out of nowhere in January of last year. So, maybe another feeder that it had been at froze. And it came looking around for other feeders and he saw it just checking his feeder out. His feeder was empty I think, he had just left the feeder out. So that’s kind of how the story typically goes.
Shannon: Yeah, that’s amazing that that they just show up like that in the middle of January. I hadn’t even thought about that. I was excited about having the one in November. If somebody sees one of these, what should they do?
Brainard: We’re all kind of in communication. We have a list to serve for the hummingbird banders. There are also a couple of non profits in our region, the southeastern U. S., that have websites that talk about the care for winter hummingbirds and what you should do. In a nutshell, they will say to contact somebody that is knowledgeable about them if you want to have it banded or see if it’s already got a band and become part of this scientific discovery.
Banding is always something that we totally leave up to the host. If people want to tell us about it, feel free to. Nobody will ever catch and band a bird without your permission. There are a few people that prefer that birds not be, but it’s pretty neat for them to be entered into this process of discovery. And the more birds that get banded, the more information we’re going to find.
So, there are three websites in the Southeast U. S. I’m aware of rubythroat.org is one. Cindy Routledge in West Tennessee has southeasternavianresearch.org. And then Fred Bassett down in southern Alabama has the Hummingbird Research Inc. If you Google those names, their websites will come up. They all have a section about what to do about winter hummingbirds and they have lists of people that would be in your local area who would be kind of an authority to call or email and ask advice.
As I say, these days, this company has come up with this heated feeder which is a nice option. One thing you need to do is decide if you want to try to keep feeding it through the winter. You know, a lot of them don’t stay. A lot of them just move on, or you know, there’s many things that can happen to a hummingbird during the fall and winter. Something else could happen to it, or it might fly on.
But, a lot of people will put a heat tape on a feeder, or put lights around it like you did, or a light under it. It’s become a little bit more difficult to warm a feeder in the winter with a light because, only the little, low heat LED lights are being sold. You know, it’s kind of hard to find the old 75 watt light bulb to put under a feeder so that it will keep the sugar water from freezing.
Also, we always tell people to not really do anything more than four to one water to sugar and don’t bother putting any coloring in or anything like that. It’s not necessary. The birds recognize it’s sugar water without it being colored red. But one thing you can do is switch to three to one, water to sugar, in the winter time when it’s really cold because it freezes at a little bit lower temperature. So, it’ll stay liquid at a little bit lower temperature if you go to three to one.
But any more with one of these websites and maybe some other Google searches on the internet, anybody’s going to be able to find a contact if they have any questions and also ways to keep the hummingbird safe.
Shannon: Yes, and I’ll put links in the show notes for those websites and organizations so that people can easily go there, find out what to do, find their local hummingbird banders, because it is so much fun to be able to be a part of that research and know that you’re contributing. At least it is for me because I’m a science nerd and science geek, but even just being able to watch the birds and help to support them through the winter is fun.
And like you were saying, a lot of people that are listening, aren’t going to find one ever, but if you find one, it is fun. And if you don’t know to look, you’re probably not going to find one or know what to do if you do find one. So it’s having those extra eyes out there that can be so important and valuable.
Oh, one more question. We’ve talked about a lot of different things with the hummingbirds and with their survival. We can get some really really cold spells where it might be near freezing for a week or for several days in a row, or our lows at night are dropping well into the freezing temperatures. What are the hummingbirds doing to survive during those time periods? Because obviously they’re not constantly coming to the feeders at that point.
Brainard: Right. Well, I am continually amazed by these birds. One of the reasons why the rufus hummingbird is successful at doing this overwintering in the east thing, is that they breed, as I mentioned, in northwest Canada and Alaska. So, it’s cold at night during their breeding season. It’s not super cold, you know, it’s not freezing all the time, but they’re cold tolerant.
Our eastern ruby throated hummingbirds that go to Central America are not cold tolerant. Probably any real cold weather and they will succumb to it because they’re not adapted to the cold as much. But the rufus are very cold tolerant. The Anna’s hummingbird of the western U.S. is another one that seems to be pretty cold tolerant. It winters at a lot of feeders in the western United States and various places, especially coastal areas.
So, the rufous hummingbirds, unlike many others, are real cold tolerant. What always amazes me about these things is that they’re so little and have a totally different metabolism than songbirds. You know, I even worry about songbirds and cold snaps of weather when it’s real snowy and cold and windy.
The metabolism of hummingbirds is the thing that really makes them unique. If you stop and think about it, when we have our coldest weather is also when we have our longest nighttime periods when they can’t be feeding and have to be inactive.
I think most people know that hummingbirds go into a state of torpor when they’re resting. Their heart rate and respiratory rate goes way down. And that’s what they do in the winter. I just am astonished that they can do it for so long. For eastern time, from something like 5:30 in the evening or late afternoon essentially until 7:30 or so in the morning, they are in a state of torpor and not able to feed. So, one of the most important things for them is to have fed well the day before. The feeder is what allows them to have carbohydrates to get through the night.
Very few nighttime roost spots of wintering hummingbirds have been found, but most of them that have been found are in a nice protected shrub or evergreen tree. On the protected side of a home or out in the yard on the more protected side of the tree. Most of the time when we get cold winter weather, it’s coming from the north. So a bird is probably going to be roosting during that long nighttime period in a dense shrub or tree, some sort of evergreen or somewhere out of the wind, when we have these really cold snaps that come in.
One of the worst things for the hummingbirds is wind because the wind diminishes the insulation from their feathers and they’re not as able to make it as long. So, a lot of times when we get really cold weather, even with snow, we’ll have hummingbirds sitting on bird feeders during the day quite a bit. The snow is something that really challenges them because on days without snow the sun warms certain places where they can find the insects that I mentioned earlier.
All of us have probably noticed on a winter day when the sun’s out, you notice, “my gosh, there’s bugs flying around.” Well, the hummingbirds are really noticing that because that’s what they survive on. So, their survival during the day is pretty much normal. They’re trying to feed. If it’s really, really cold and cloudy and windy, and maybe there’s snow on the ground, they may just be hunkering down.
From what I’ve seen over the years, the rufous hummingbirds, if they go into a real cold snap in good condition and it hasn’t been super cold or snowy before that period, then they’llsily make it through two or three nights of single digit temperatures, especially if it’s not windy. Which is the astonishing thing to me with the nighttime period being so long. But their biggest challenge is to get through the nighttime period.
So that’s why I always tell people it’s really important, if they’re feeding the hummingbird, especially during the cold spells, to make sure as soon as they come out of torpor in the morning, maybe even before sunrise, that the feeder is not frozen solid in the morning so they can get that first feeding in the morning. That’s the most critical one, but otherwise they’re just hunkered down.
There’s a lot of wildlife that when we have the polar vortex arrives they’re just laying low trying to make the best out of things until the weather improves and hummingbirds are no different.
Shannon: Yes, and it was that torpor that I really wanted you to bring up and talk about because you said most people know but I’ve run into a lot of people that don’t know about torpor. So, I think it’s always important to bring that up so that people know what’s going on because that even happens during the fall migration and the spring migration.
I mean, when the hummingbirds get back up here in April, we can still have a cold snap as the past couple of years have shown, but the hummingbirds are already here. So they’ll go into like you were saying that state of torpor to get through those code spells, even if it’s not that overwintering time period. But yeah, it’s amazing what the rufous hummingbirds can do overwintering.
This has been really interesting and educational. Is there anything else that you want to share with us before we wrap up?
Brainard: I’ll reiterate that if you are somebody who has one show up, you really need to make a choice early in the season. You know, think about your wintertime. Is there a period when we’re going to go to Florida for two weeks? That’s not an issue if you can make sure there’s a neighbor that’s going to reliably make sure that the sugar water gets changed in the feeder regularly. It doesn’t need to be changed as much in the wintertime because temperatures are cold.
There was a woman that had a rufous hummingbird two winters in a row down in south central Kentucky a few years ago. And she actually successfully overwintered that hummingbird without electricity. Which I thought was impressive. She didn’t have a light on the feeder or a heated feeder or anything like that. But, you need to think about it.
If you get a hummingbird, you can contact me, or another contact in another state. There’s at least one person in all the states in the East to contact about this and the websites will point people to those individuals. Those people can help give you advice on it.
But, if you do get a hummingbird that appears in all respects to be a rufous and you think it’s going to stay the winter and it’s in November or early December, then make sure that you’re committed to the bird because as I said, there will be a time, at least from our latitude and farther north where the bird is going to be dependent on that feeder for survival sometime in January or February.
Also be aware that they all don’t make it. But all the white-tailed deer don’t make it each winter too, you know, because of this or that. And, the robins… How many times have we seen a snow come in the winter and the robins are all trying to figure out what to do. It’s late in the winter and there’s not much food left, and you’ll see them on the roadside and stuff.
So not everyone’s going to survive. But if they have a reliable food source, they’re capable of surviving the winter here. So, it’s kind of a like there’s a give and take. You have to weigh your level of commitment because I think it does take some commitment to make sure you’re going to be responsible enough to provide that to the bird reliably through the winter.
Shannon: Yes, I definitely agree with that. And if that’s not something that you’re comfortable doing, or like you said earlier, it’s going to make you too anxious and worried then just take your feeder down and let them move on to somewhere else. That’s perfectly okay, too.
Brainard: Yeah. Also, you know, some people get certain ideas. It doesn’t work to try to transport the birds south. Once it gets cold. It’s not possible at all. It won’t work. And it’s also not possible to keep them inside. You know, if you have a hummingbird that you think has gotten cold or something, you try to bring it inside because you get the bright idea that we’re just going to let it stay in this side den room we don’t use or something that, that doesn’t work either.
And trust me, there’s, there’s so many things that can happen to a hummingbird inside. Even though it’s warm, there’s plenty of other things that can happen to a hummingbird that’s not living free that you don’t want to ever happen. Besides being illegal to restrain a bird like that, it’s just not a good idea. The best thing is to provide the feeder, provide the stable carbohydrate source, and make sure it available, then let nature take its course after that.
Shannon: Right. Well, this has been awesome again. Thank you so much. And I will have all those links for everybody listening in the show notes. Thanks again, Brainard for talking with us today. This has been great.
Brainard: Yeah. Fun to be with you. Thanks.
Shannon: All right. Thanks. Bye.
I appreciate Brainerd taking the time to talk with us today. This is a topic that is so fascinating to me and that I really enjoy talking about and sharing with others.
Even though I know the odds of another winter hummingbird finding me are low, I always keep looking and hoping. I also enjoy getting the word out about them, so that others have the opportunity to potentially enjoy them too. Because if we don’t know that winter hummingbirds are even a possibility, then we don’t know to look for them. Or if we do think we catch a glimpse of one, then we may write it off as our minds just playing tricks on us, or it having to be something else, because everybody knows that hummingbirds aren’t around in the winter. Everybody just kind of forgot to tell that to some of these western hummingbirds that occasionally pop up.
Joking aside, I also think having these conversations is really important so that we know what to do if one does visit our homes. Or rather we know our options and can make good informed decisions about what is best for our specific situations. And if you do have a winter hummingbird visit your property, then I encourage you to use the links in the show notes to report it to your nearest hummingbird bander. Even if you decide to let it move on or decide not to have it banded, at least report it so that the researchers can know that it existed. If you can get good, close pictures of it from multiple angles, then even better.
Like I said at the beginning, Anthony and I are conducting a survey in November 2023 to help us create Backyard Ecology content and programs that will serve you best. If you are listening to this podcast shortly after it comes out, please take a few minutes to complete the survey and let us know what topics you want to hear about and what programs interest you the most. The link to the survey is in the show notes.
Until next week I encourage you to take some time to explore the nature in your yard and community.
- A rufous hummingbird that Brainard banded in Kentucky. (Not the one that overwintered at my house.)
- Photo credit: Brainard Palmer-Ball, all rights reserved
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.