Bird Files: Rufous Hummingbirds' Cold-Weather Journey

  • With its aerial maneuverability and speed, the Rufous Hummingbird is a match for intruders hundreds of times its size. Photo: Geoff Malosh

November 14, 2014

Just about every written account of the Rufous Hummingbird uses the word “feisty.” That’s because this 3-inch-long, bird, weighing 3 grams, is anything but pint-sized when it comes to defending its territory or driving off potential predators. With its aerial maneuverability and speed, the Rufous Hummingbird is a match for intruders hundreds of times its size. Jays, hawks, cats, and even humans are likely to buzz off when this mighty-mite of a bird dive-bombs them!

The Rufous Hummingbird shows its toughness in other ways, too. It has the longest migration of any hummingbird, routinely flying 2,500 miles between breeding and wintering grounds. When it returns to nest in the Cascades and foothills of the Rocky Mountains from Oregon to Alaska, it usually finds snow still covering the ground. But, this hardy hummingbird seeks out tiny flying insects that become active on sunny days and survives even in very cold weather. 

Historically, the range of the Rufous Hummingbird was confined to these northwestern areas in summer and to Mexico in the winter. In the past few decades, though, the species has begun to expand its range eastward. Pioneering Rufouses have plotted a new migratory route that now regularly brings them all the way across the continent. When they show up in the East in the late fall, they often must again endure cold temperatures, and even snow!  But after staying for several weeks—during which time, researchers have learned, they molt their wing feathers—most of them continue migrating on to new wintering areas in the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast.

Although the adult male Rufous Hummingbird bears unmistakable bright orange-brown plumage, females and immature birds closely resemble other species, including the familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  But any Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visited your feeders throughout spring and summer have departed by early October.

So, consider leaving your hummingbird feeder up until after Thanksgiving. And let researchers know about your sightings to help us learn even more about the biology of these cold weather "hummingbrrrds!"  

The National Aviary's Bob Mulvihill encourages you to contact him with your hummingbird sightings. His twitter handle is @bobmulvihill.

Bird calls for this segment come courtesy of The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by Geoffrey A.Keller, William W. H. Gunn, Richard Nelson.