The fall western hummingbird migration passes through my backyard from July to late October. I take a lot of photos while they here, so I have a decent record of when they arrive and when they depart. We normally have 4-species, Black-chinned (which nest locally,) Broad-tailed (nesting at higher elevations in New Mexico,) Calliope (coming from the Pacific Northwest,) and Rufous, the long-haul traveler of the bunch whose main nesting grounds stretch from Washington to southern coastal Alaska. All of them are on their way to Mexico and Central America for the winter.
At the peak of their visit, we have 9 feeders spread around the yard. We also plant Zinnias and Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia spp) which they favor. Plus, the occasional Penstemon and Cherry Sage that blossom with the red and pink flowers they prefer. For the months of July and August (and sometimes into September,) it’s a show of aerial combat every single night as they battle for a spot on the feeders. And we go through a hundred pounds of sugar every summer.
There are always a few stragglers – youngsters that hang out well into October. One year we had a single bird that stayed into November, either finally succumbing to the cold or moving on. There is a well-worn myth that the birds will hang around if there is food. But the truth is, their migration programming is far stronger than a free meal and so if there is a bird hanging around much longer than its departed peers, it has a wiring problem and probably isn’t going to survive. In those few cases, I think it’s preferable to keep a meal in front of it while it makes up its mind.
Normally our weather stays moderately warm until late in October. Last year our garden survived until into November, in fact, I baked our last two tomato pies one year ago today. This year though pretty much everything was dead by the 23rd. And so, discovering that I still have 3 hummingbirds came as a bit of a shock.
I’m pretty sure these fellows are Rufous, although there is some overlap in coloration with their Broad-tailed cousins. Not surprising as Rufous are pugnacious as hell, spending most of their time fighting with everyone else when they could be fueling up. Leave it to a Rufous to tell the weather, “You think this is cold, you don’t know what cold is!” All the while sitting in a tree shivering and waiting for it to warm up enough to fly down to a feeder.
And so I was not surprised when I found a dead Rufous a couple of days ago. Not quite stiff yet so it must have died that morning. It was a cold one, 19°, and the day didn’t climb up much from that. Because I have this little population handing around, I’ve been rotating feeders, putting a warm one out first thing in the morning and bringing the icy one inside. I had seen a bird sitting on the porch feeder the previous day, and this little body was found nearby, so I figured this was him. Every time I find a dead one, it just breaks my heart to think about everything they have gone through, and the distances they have traveled to find themselves on my front porch. But Nature is a harsh mistress.
But then last night I saw another bird on that porch feeder and another out back by the garden.
It was 13° this morning when I went out to feed the horses and break the ice in their water tanks. As I rounded the corner and headed to swap the garden feeder, I was surprised to see last night’s bird, sitting there and trying to drink. The feeder was solidly frozen. This feeder hangs on my bike shop building and even when I climbed the few stairs to place the warm feeder, the bird would not move. He fluttered his wings a few times and went right back to trying to get a meal. I hung the warm feeder on a second hook and left the bird to its business.
It was gone when I finished my chores, so I collected the frozen one and moved the warm one to the sunnier spot. (I had to go back an hour later and do a second swap because at this temperature even the warm feeders don’t stay that way for long.)
So, I’ll keep watching and trying to help them along. A friend recommended hunter’s hand warmers to keep the bottles warm enough to provide a meal before I can get out there at dawn. I know that would sound crazy to many, but given the state of our natural world, I just feel like every little bit helps. And if it’s possible to give one small creature a slightly better day, then honestly, I’m going to take the time to do it.
And so the watch continues.