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An adult male rufous hummingbird visited a central Illinois feeder this summer. Photo courtesy of Ellen Miller.

Hummingbird show not over yet

September 05, 2013 at 06:40 PM

The State Journal-Register




Don’t be too critical when a hummingbird starts defending your feeder this month, claiming it as his or her own.

Its just part of a survival strategy in the wild that has carried over to the backyard.

“The hummingbird is a ‘me-first’ bird,” said Vern Kleen, a retired ornithologist from Springfield who has banded thousands of hummingbirds. “When it finds a food source, it doesn’t want anyone else to get at it.”

Kleen said it all has to do with protecting food sources in the wild that are not as bottomless as the feeders provided by homeowners.

“It takes a certain amount of time for each flower to regenerate its nectar (after a feeding),” Kleen said. “So it’s driving these other birds away from the food source (while the nectar is replenished).

“Now they do the same thing with bird feeders not realizing the feeder is a constant supply and there is enough for everybody,” he said. “The hummingbird has to make sure there is enough for himself or herself.”

If you notice a changing of the guard at your feeder every few days, it’s because birds leave for migration and new birds move in.

“These birds are changing on a daily basis because they are heading south,” Kleen said. “They are defending it for a short time and then they move on.”

Backyard birders often take their hummingbird feeders down after Labor Day, assuming the show is just about over.

Kleen said it could just be getting started.

“I always encourage people to keep their feeders out until after Thanksgiving because that’s when the unusual ones show up,” he said. “And if they find a feeding station, they tend to stay.”

Who’s that stranger?

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird to breed east of the Mississippi River and is almost exclusively the one we see in backyards and at feeders.

But occasionally, a hummingbird blown off course or one exploring new territory is discovered on this side of the Mississippi. Ellen Miller of Atwater photographed a rufous hummingbird at her feeder this summer.

The rufous hummingbird, which is rusty orange with a brownish-orange back, breeds in the northwest United States, western Canada and southern Alaska. It winters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and in Mexico.


The rufous hummingbird with an orange back can be seen on the perch.

But one way or another, the bird made its way east to Miller’s home.

Her daughter Sherry Bounds saw the rufous hummingbird one day when Miller was at work.

“My daughter was visiting earlier this summer and she said, ‘Dad, there is an orange hummingbird out there,’ and he said, “Maybe I should take you to town to get your eyes checked,’” Miller said with a laugh.

“I didn’t know what it was at first.”

She watched it for a while before trying to snap a photo.

“When I did it took me about three days to get a picture,” she said. “The other birds attacked it to keep it away from the feeder. But eventually it worked its way in there.”

Kleen said there were four confirmed sightings of rufous hummingbirds in Illinois last year, and he banded all four.

One bird was seen in November, two in December and one in January.

A rufous hummingbird seen in Valmeyer in late December stayed all winter, not leaving until mid-March.

Kleen said some may simply be “off course,” but others may be pioneers, taking the first steps of range expansion.

“These birds, if enough of them change their migratory behavior, the whole pattern would be a shifting scenario so that one day it could be a regular thing, not an unusual thing (to find a rufous hummingbird in Illinois),” he said.

The vast majority of rufous hummingbirds are migrating south, not toward the eastern United States. But Kleen said 20 years ago, no rufous hummingbirds were found in Illinois. Now a few are seen each year.

Conventional wisdom was that those occasional birds had little chance to survive. But that might not be the case.

“A lot of them do survive, but how far away they go we don’t know,” Kleen said. “That’s why we like to band them to see if they show up other places.”

He said there are occasional records of other species of hummingbirds showing up in Illinois.

Leave ‘em up

Miller said she likes to remind her customers at the Ace Hardware store in Carlinville where she works, to leave their hummingbird feeders up.

“After I see my last bird — what I think it is going to be my last bird — I leave the feeders up for another two weeks,” she said.

Kleen also asks hummingbird enthusiasts to forgo putting red food coloring in the sugar-water solution. It’s not good for the birds and also is unnecessary when trying to attract hummingbirds.

“The flowers on the feeders are sculpted red and that is adequate,” he said.

Kleen will wind up the season’s hummingbird festivals with a banding session in Mascoutah on Sunday.

So far he’s banded 1,700 hummingbirds, a bit down from his usual tally of 2,000 or so each year.

Those who see late-arriving, unusual hummingbirds can call Kleen at 787-3515.

“We are trying to band as many non-ruby-throats as possible,” he said. “We are trying to get a handle on how many (are finding their way to Illinois), and we’re not hurting the birds (by banding them.)”

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisYoungPSO.

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