Identifying fall and winter hummingbirds in the Midwest and much of the eastern U.S. can be a challenge! Many of the hummers are in their fall and/or juvenal plumage and do not look like the adults we are accustomed to seeing during the summer. Young male Ruby-throats have similar characteristics to females. With the recent awareness of western hummingbirds “vagrants” visiting our area in the winter, the challenge becomes even greater. It is so difficult that two species of western hummers that we may encounter in our area are identical to the naked eye! This is one reason hummingbird banding is so important. Through in-hand observations, measurements and characteristics we can identify just about any vagrant hummingbird that we may encounter in the winter.
There are several simple ways to consider whether or not you have a Ruby-throated Hummingbird or a western vagrant. The best way is in-hand by a hummingbird bander.
For Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the fall/winter:
1. By looking at your feeder the first clue that you may have something other than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the date. Anything after November 15 should not be a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Although they have occurred after this date (last year w/ the mild winter), generally speaking you should not see them.
2. Is there one ‘lone’ hummingbird still hanging around your feeder after all the others have left?
If so, look for a noticeably fatter than usual hummer that sits more than it hovers at the feeder and seems a little sluggish. This is probably a Ruby-throated Hummingbird still gorging itself for it’s migration flight. (Ruby-throats can double their weight in preparation for migration)
Other basic things to look for:
-Look for the presence of a distinct white spot at the back of the eye.
-Young males right now will have a scattering of red gorget feathers that can create a false appearance of stripes on the neck.
-Young males may still have white tips on the tail feathers, but should have some red on the neck by now.
-Young Ruby-throats sometimes display feather molt with the shaft of the feathers showing which can create a false appearance of white patterns on the head and/or back.
-Young females will look plain green on the back, white on the belly, often with a tinge of buff on the flanks.
-Some young Ruby-throats will have brownish/bronzish tinge to the green body feathers.
-Look for rufous coloration on the flanks, belly and/or rump areas.
-White spot behind eye not as distinct as Ruby-throated, but sometimes visible.
-Look for rufous coloration on the tail feathers.
It is best not to rely on the gorget (throat) feather appearance as even Ruby-throats red feathers can display rosy, orangish variations depending upon the angle of the sun, whether or not the sun is reflecting off of an object or hitting the bird directly, and the angle at which it is being viewed.
Keep a feeder out through Jan. 1 … you might get a rare visitor!
Keeping a feeder out will not keep the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from migrating. If they are physically able, they will go when they are ready.
Western hummingbirds, especially Rufous, are in no danger by remaining here through the winter. Rufous breed as far north as the Yukon Territory. They are designed for cold climates. At night, they are capable of going into a state of torpor to aid in their survival. Some will ‘hang around’ at your feeder all winter!
If you see a hummingbird that just doesn’t quite look like your ‘normal’ Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, take a few photos and send them to me. If it appears unusual, I would appreciate the opportunity to come and band the bird, take measurements and close-up photos then release the bird unharmed. If the hummer has been there awhile and it turns out to be a western vagrant, banding will not make the hummer leave.
Female Rufous and Female Allen’s Hummingbirds in winter are exactly identical to the naked eye. Banders look at one single tail feather and its shape to differentiate the two species.