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Hummingbird Overwinters on Cape Cod—With a Little Help

Mark Faherty
An image of the bird in question during the banding.

As more and more of our early migrants pour in each day, like Red-winged Blackbirds, grackles, and Osprey, it’s hard not to think of the eventual orioles, warblers, and other birds of later spring. It’s therapeutic in this bleak month to imagine our gardens blooming, bees buzzing, and colorful birds about. But as we gaze dreamily forward towards warmer times, let’s not forget the seabirds, ducks, finches, and hummingbirds that get us through the winter. “Did the bird weirdo just say that hummingbirds winter over on Cape Cod? He’s finally lost it. It was only a matter of time”, is what you are likely saying. But I didn’t take leave of my faculties, at least not completely, for a hummingbird has indeed overwintered on the Cape, and it’s not the first time.

In early December I got a call from someone reporting a Ruby-throated Hummingbird – they had left their feeder out for stragglers, as I advise people to do. Believe it or not, December is the peak month for hummingbird diversity on Cape Cod. Six species have been recorded here in that month, five of them stragglers from the west, while only one, Ruby-throated, has ever been reported from May to July. It’s because western species sometimes head the wrong way in fall migration, with these lost waifs typically arriving here in late fall.

The caller’s hummingbird had shown up in mid-November, so I suspected it would turn out to be a Rufous or other rare hummingbird from out west. I connected them with a local bander permitted to work with hummingbirds, and sure enough, it was a young male Rufous Hummingbird. While many of the rare hummingbirds over the years have been available for birders to visit, it wasn’t possible to make this bird public because of parking, privacy, and safety concerns – we definitely would have ended up with road-killed birders if this bird was made public.

While you might reasonably think of hummingbirds as delicate doilies unsuited to survive a Cape Cod winter, you’d be surprised how tough and cold tolerant they really are. About 15 years ago I was running a bird survey project in a coastal rainforest in Washington State, and was at times the only human inhabitant of the watershed where I was working and camping. Among my only friends was a female Rufous Hummingbird with a nest nearby. She would occasionally come eat ash out of my fire pit while I sat there, something I later learned was to replace calcium and other minerals lost through egg laying and, to put it scientifically, too much peeing from their liquidy diet.

I was in awe of this tiny, high-strung creature raising babies in that cold, relentlessly wet rainforest with no visible flowers in bloom. Rufous Hummingbirds are birds of extremes – extremely small, extremely pugnacious. They nest extremely far north for a hummingbird and have an extremely long migration – the trip from Alaska to southern Mexico is the longest migration of any bird relative to body length. They even arrive extremely early in spring, as early as late February in Washington state.

In 2017 a male Rufous Hummingbird successfully overwintered at a feeder in Falmouth, and another overwintered in Bourne back in 2007. They can’t do this without someone providing nectar in a feeder, of course, which needs to be managed so it doesn’t freeze. It’s a lot of work. Some hosting winter hummingbirds have just had multiple feeders that they switch out when one freezes, others wrapped lights around the feeder to keep it from freezing.

I just learned the house hosting this winter’s Rufous Hummingbird is changing hands in a few weeks. Fear not, because the new owner has agreed to take on the hummingbird responsibilities if it stays. I just wish I could have been at the closing when the “hummingbird clause” was agreed to by both parties…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.