Rufous hummingbirds follow the blooms

Returning robins herald the arrival of spring on the East Coast, flocking beside Southern highways then slowly moving north. In our area, rufous hummingbirds play a similar role, albeit less conspicuously. One day in early March or thereabouts, you spot a male rufous "hummer" in a familiar perch on a tree or feeder and you know they are returning.

Hummingbirds are unusual birds in several ways. Tiny feet make walking or hopping difficult, so hummers fly everywhere and feed on the wing. Marvelously adapted to flight, they achieve uplift on both their forward and backward wing strokes. Not only can hummers hover - so too can terns, harriers and kestrels - but they also can fly backwards. Despite tiny brains, they are smart enough to remember where good food sources are. They have been observed returning to places where a feeder hung the year before but no longer is present.

Gender roles are radically different for male and female hummingbirds. Brightly colored males seek attention, often perching quite visibly on branches. They are polygamous, seeking as many mates as their territories can support. Male hummers, like many species of ducks, however, do not go near the nests, lest they disclose locations to potential predators. Indeed male hummers play no role whatsoever in family life.

Hummingbirds are the current Bird of the Month in one educational outreach program of the Dungeness River Audubon Center. Volunteers from the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society will be presenting a program on hummers to each second-grade class at Greywolf and Helen Haller elementary schools.

Rufous hummingbirds are long-distance migrants. After wintering in Mexico or along the U.S. Gulf Coast, they fly as far north as southern Alaska to breed. Rather than bulk up with considerable fat to fuel long nonstop flights, they travel in relatively short hops. They follow the blooms - working their way northward as spring flowers open on trees and small plants. Many of them arrive in Oregon's Willamette Valley, for example, as the crimson-flowered currant bursts into bloom.

Male rufous hummers arrive a week or so before the females. They quickly re-establish old breeding territories or stake out new ones, seeking an abundant source of blooms as well as protected areas for nests. Extremely aggressive, they drive away competitors, including the larger but more passive Anna's hummingbirds (the only other hummer found locally). Once the rufous females begin to arrive, the rufous males begin to perform flashy aerial displays to attract them. The males fly up 100 feet or so, then noisily plunge, pulling out of the dive just before crashing.

Drab-colored, well-camouflaged females do all the work, from nest building to fledging of chicks. They build tiny nests - outside diameter less than 2 inches, inside diameter roughly 1 inch. As soon as early April, a female rufous hummer lays two pea-sized eggs. Less than six weeks later, a chick will make its first flight, never to return to the nest. It may, however, stay nearby for a while, letting Mom continue to feed it.

During breeding season, on our weekly Wednesday morning bird walks along the Olympic Peninsula Discovery Trail in Railroad Bridge Park, we see the different habitat choices of male and female rufous hummers. The resident male hummer hangs out in the open area 30 to 100 yards beyond the woods just west of the Dungeness River. The nests are back in the woods.

By late June, male rufous hummers have begun thinking of returning to southern homelands and most will have departed by mid-July. Females typically follow later, once their broods have fledged. Young hummers will linger even longer, building up their strength and stamina for the long trip.

Therein lies a problem. The blooms that fueled the adult's flight north through the lowlands are largely gone. But higher elevations are full of flowers in July. Looking to follow the blooms, many rufous hummers swing eastward across northern Washington (or southern British Columbia) to the Rocky Mountains. They then travel southward along the Rockies, refuelling in mountain meadows. I don't know of any other bird having a migratory pattern to match that.

Dave Jackson is "Our Birds" series editor and Web master. Send comments to him at or 683-1355. Olympic Peninsula Audubon meets at 7 p.m. today, March 18, at the Dungeness River Audubon Center, 2151 W. Hendrickson Road, Sequim. The Olympic BirdFest is April 3-5. Details of bird classes and field trips are on the Web site at

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