Photos By Ron Holmes
Signs of Springs are showing up in Skagit County. Along with longer daylight hours and the beautiful buds of flowering red currant, start looking for the feisty male Rufous Hummingbird. The male aggressively defends territory in anticipation of the arrival of females. These birds are known to exhibit “feeder memory.” So be sure and have hummingbird feeders out and ready for their arrival.
Identification of this bird is easy in the Northwest. The two most frequently seen hummingbirds are Anna's, which can be observed year-round and the migrating Rufous, which arrives in the Northwest early spring. The Anna's is mostly green overall. The male has an iridescent red hood and throat. The female has a grayish-white breast and belly with a few red central throat feathers. The Rufous male is a very bright fellow. Suitably named, the male is rufous-brown overall with a red-orange throat and white breast. The female is mostly green with rufous-brown flanks and patches on her green tail. The breast is white and some females have a few orange feathers on their throats. In both species the female is larger than the male and juveniles resemble the females. At your feeder, the most aggressive hummingbird is the male Rufous, followed by the female Rufous. The Anna's is not nearly aggressive and will be chased away.
The migration cycle of the Rufous is unique. They perform a clockwise migration annually. The males begin migration late winter, starting from high elevation juniper forests in Mexico. They follow the Pacific Coast as wild flowers bloom north to Alaska. The females start arriving in April. They are the nest builders. Construction of the quarter-sized nest starts with plant down and spider webs. The outside of the nest is decorated with lichen and moss. Scientists believe the lichen provides camouflage. The spider webbing helps the nest expand as the young hummingbirds grow. The male/female relationship is polygamous and the male is often aggressive to mated females in his territory. The female lays two pea-sized eggs. The male is the first to leave the breeding grounds leaving the females to incubate and feed hatchlings. Incubation is about 15 days and the young hummingbirds fledge within 19 days. The female feeds the nestlings regurgitated insects. The migration south starts in August and follows a mountainous route as the alpine wild flowers bloom. During migration, nectar becomes the main food source. Scientistic studies have recorded the Rufous Hummingbird foraging for nectar up to 15 times each hour. The bird can only feed when its crop is half empty. Therefore, hummingbirds can be observed perched near their food source defending the source instead of continuing to feed.
The Rufous is a true survivor. This hummingbird is known to withstand sub-zero temperatures by resorting to a torpor state. The hummingbird reduces its heart-rate, body temperature and need to feed. Conservation concerns for the Rufous are habitat changes to its wintering territory of higher elevations in Mexico. The Rufous is expanding its territory eastward. Scientists believe this eastward migration is helped by the increase of nectar feeders. Some Rufous are wintering on the Gulf Coast. The oldest recorded life-span of a Rufous is 8 years 11 months.
Signs of Spring are all around. It's time to keep the nectar feeders cleaned and full. Remember granulated sugar is best. The ratio of sugar to water is one to four. So, dissolve one quarter cup of sugar into one cup of warm water. No need to boil the solution. Do not add red food dye to the solution. The best feeders are the ones easiest to keep clean. A glass feeder with a red plastic base and flowers is a good inexpensive choice. Be sure to change the solution before it gets cloudy. Outdoor temperatures will make a difference with cleaning frequency. Plan to change the feeder solution weekly.
References available upon request.