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Rufous and Ruby Won’t Leave: When Hummingbirds Don’t Fly South for the Winter

Rufous and Ruby Won’t Leave: When Hummingbirds Don’t Fly South for the Winter

Ask a friend with a hummingbird feeder and they’ve probably seen, at some point, that one lone, lingering hummingbird still hanging around long after the rest of your feeder patrons have departed. They will probably also confess to being more than a little worried about how something that weighs but a few grams can survive the sometimes oddly bitter cold of a Texas winter. One of the questions that frequently arises when a hummingbird is still hanging around is whether you should still put out nectar, or is that wrongly encouraging the bird to not get on with its migrating business and head south? And why, exactly, did that little bird not head out with the others?

Why do hummingbirds migrate?
In a nutshell, hummingbirds head south because they’re carnivores. While we are accustomed to seeing them at our bright red feeders enjoying sweet nectar, our tiny feathered friends are actually bug meat eaters and, when insects are not as abundant in the winter, they must head to more tropical climes to avoid starvation. As noted by, “nectar is just the fuel to power their flycatching activity.”

Do hummingbirds migrate together?
If you’ve ever seen a couple of Ruby-throated hummingbirds go after each other around the feeder, you won’t be too surprised to learn that hummingbirds do not migrate as a friendly flock, per se. But it’s really more about simply being too small to benefit from traveling in each other’s wake unlike larger birds. Typically, males leave first with females and juveniles following. Because they do tend to migrate around the same time, large groups of them may be seen together. For example, great numbers of hummingbirds may gather along the Texas Gulf Coast in early September, fattening up and waiting for the right conditions to make their way across the Gulf on their way to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Why would a hummingbird not migrate?
While some Rufous hummingbirds may linger in southern Texas into the winter months, and, according to Birdwatcher’s Digest, “there are hummingbird researchers who feel that the increasing numbers of overwintering Rufous hummingbirds in the eastern half of the U.S. are a direct result of the increased presence of hummingbird feeders and hardy blooming plants in human-altered landscapes,” most simply won’t risk the possibility of cold weather. So why is that one little bird still hanging around your feeder? The theory of some hummingbird researchers notwithstanding, the short answer is survival of the fittest. A hummingbird might not migrate because it’s too old, too ill, or too young and not because you are still maintaining your feeder. A hummingbird’s internal clock tells it when to leave, not the availability of nectar. In fact, leaving up your feeder up helps late-departing stragglers fuel up for their departure, and can also help those who return early while it’s still chilly outside.

What should I do to help a hummingbird still at my feeder in the winter?
Other than continuing to maintain your feeder with fresh nectar, as cute as they may be, hummingbirds are still wildlife and, ultimately, it’s up to their survival skills and nature. As we’ve discussed before, the birds can go into a state of torpor during the cold to conserve energy and, as all Texans know, if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes. Hang in there, little birds!

Photo, above, of a Rufuous hummingbird in Dripping Springs, Texas, on January 12, 2016. Photo courtesy Fragrance Stinks.

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