Winter Hummingbirds

 Banding a Calliope Hummingbird, Photo by Fred Bassett

Banding a Calliope Hummingbird, Photo by Fred Bassett

Every January Fred Bassett or Fred Dietrich, licensed bird banders and volunteers for the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG), speaks at Native Nurseries. They begin their talks by telling us that only one species of hummingbird – the Ruby-throated – is shown to live east of the Mississippi in older field guides. This is the hummingbird that is most familiar to us; they usually show up in our yards in March after wintering in Central America. They visit our feeders, feast on nectar and insects, and nest here in the summer. By mid-October most have migrated across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America.

However, through winter banding activities, HBSG has documented thirteen other hummingbird species east of the Mississippi. Most common in winter in Tallahassee is the Rufous Hummingbird, but they have also banded Calliope, Buff-bellied, Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, Costa’s, Broad-billed and Allen’s. In one Killearn yard alone, six different species of hummingbirds have been banded over the years.

Much to his surprise, a female Rufous Hummingbird banded by Fred Dietrich in Tallahassee a few years ago in mid-January was recaptured in Alaska on June 28th the same year. This is the longest documented migration of a hummingbird, 3,523 miles. She weighed 4.1 grams in Alaska, signaling that she was putting on weight for the southward migration. A normal weight is approximately 3 grams.

The western hummingbirds have probably been coming here for many years, but were not usually observed because feeders were taken down in September. Also, people are planting their yards with hummingbird plants that they can see from their windows and are noticing the birds more.

What did winter hummingbirds feed on before feeders and perennial gardens? Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to sapsucker wells. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a winter migratory woodpecker that drills into trees to extract sweet sap. Hummingbirds also eat lots of insects.

Some folks in Tallahassee leave their feeders up all winter to attract hummingbirds, but December and January are the most likely months to see them. They will feed on sugar water from feeders, insects, nectar from perennials that overwinter due to recent mild winters, natural winter blooming plants and sap from sap wells. Just remember that if you decide to leave a feeder up over the winter, you will need to clean it regularly, though not as often as a summer feeder.

The Hummer Bird Study Group encourages people to keep their hummingbird feeders up in winter. If you have a hummingbird after November 15th, contact Fred Dietrich at fdietrich@gmail.com and he will try to coordinate a visit to your yard to identify and band “your” bird. This is a fascinating experience. Fred always photographs the homeowner holding and releasing the banded bird. He says some people are moved to tears by the experience of holding such an exquisite creature in their hands. Fred started the winter hummingbird season off this year by observing three Black-chinned Hummingbirds, one in Killearn, one in Betton Hills and another near Raa Avenue in late October.