A Rufous Hummingbird's Story
Imagine sitting at your computer one cold November day, and suddenly hearing through your window the hum of beating hummingbird wings! That’s what happened to Laura Erickson. And this wasn’t a hummingbird she’d ever seen in her own backyard before.
Laura lives in Minnesota, where almost all the hummingbirds are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. But every now and then a hummingbird from the American West finds its way to Minnesota. As ornithologists and hummingbird banders like Mike Patterson learn more and more about hummingbirds, we’re discovering that one species, the Rufous Hummingbird, isn’t strictly a western species at all. Many individuals spend their winter in eastern states, and some return year after year. And although we usually think of hummingbirds as very fragile, it turns out that Rufous Hummingbirds can survive in far colder conditions than most people realize.
Laura’s hummingbird was tricky to identify; it was so speedy and active that no one could see important features like the color of its rump feathers or how its tail feathers were marked. It had some bright red throat feathers, leading many people at first to think it was a male. But people taking photos finally got some clear looks at the green rump. We knew it was really an adult female, and almost definitely a Rufous Hummingbird. Laura named her Viola because in a play called Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, a character tricked people into thinking she was a boy.
Laura wanted to do everything she could to make sure this little bird survived the cold weather and got into condition to migrate again. She wrote to ornithologists who knew a lot about wintering hummingbirds, like Sheri Williamson and Nancy Newfield. They offered tips on helping Viola survive. Laura put many feeders out in her yard. Some had the normal sugar water mix (one quarter cup of sugar in one cup of water). Others had a stronger mixture (one third cup of sugar in one cup of water). Every night Laura brought her feeders into the house. She put them out again at first light in the morning. She bought an expensive bird bath heater and put it under one feeder. That was the only feeder Viola never tried, even once!
Of course, hummingbirds feed on tiny insects and spiders as well as nectar. Could a hummingbird possibly find tiny cold-blooded creatures in November in Minnesota? Laura didn’t think so—but she was wrong! On days when the temperatures were inthe 30s and 40s, and even a few days when it was in the high 20s, she could actually watch Viola feeding in a spruce tree and an apple tree. With strong binoculars she could see Viola eating tiny spiders!
Now winter was coming. The days were getting colder and colder, and still Viola kept coming. On December 2, Laura looked out at thick snow swirling through the air. She wondered how Viola could have possibly survived the night. But at 7:32 am, there she was! Every ten minutes or so all day long, she came to the feeder. The high temperature was only 19 degrees. Then the snow cleared, and the temperature dropped. When Laura went to bed, her thermometer read 6 degrees F and the wind rattled her windows. Her house was creaking and groaning with cold. She couldn’t sleep, worrying about that tiny hummingbird out there.
Laura knew that hummingbirds migrate by day, not night. If Viola was there in the afternoon and then didn’t show up the next morning, she would have died during the night. Laura was very scared that Viola wouldn’t be there in the morning after that awful cold. But at 7:23 am, there she was! The temperature quickly rose to over 20 degrees, and Viola fed and fed and fed. And then, at 9:30, she flew away. She didn’t come back.
Laura was SO happy! The timing of Viola's departure showed that almost definitely she had migrated. Where did she go? We don’t know. She hadn’t been banded, so even if an adult Rufous Hummingbird comes back to Laura’s house next spring or fall, she won’t know for sure if it’s Viola. But Laura will sure be looking for her.