Search of the Week: “it is september why am i only getting female hummingbirds at my feeders…”

In juvenile plumage, young male hummingbirds like this Ruby-throated usually look a lot like their mothers. They also seem to leave the nest with chips on their shoulders.

In juvenile plumage, young male hummingbirds like this Ruby-throated usually look a lot like their mothers. They also seem to leave the nest with chips on their shoulders.

The full search was: “it is september why am i only getting female hummingbirds at my feeders and she is very aggressive”

By September, most of the migratory hummingbirds remaining at northern latitudes will be young birds of both sexes, which look like adult females except for variable amounts of pale fringing on the iridescent feathers of their backs and heads (plus a few other subtle differences, depending on species). Young males often show lines of dark spots on the throat, a pattern hummingbirders call “five-o’clock shadow.” Some young males will show bright flashes of color in their gorgets as adult feathers replace drab juvenile ones.

Though females of any age can be very aggressive and territorial, especially in migration, it’s the young males that seem to be the biggest troublemakers (as though they think they have something to prove). As long as there are still good numbers of hummingbirds around, expect the screeching, chasing, grappling, and chest-bumping to continue.

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I get mail

I get a lot of mail this time of year asking for help with hummingbird identification. Those that are accompanied by photos are usually pretty easy to deal with, but ones like this give me a bad, bad feeling:

I live in Michigan. My daughter had a friend that lived along the Maple river. They saw yellow, red and green hummingbirds. These were brightly colored. She discribed the yellow one as looking like a goldfinch. They all appeared to be the same type of birds only different bright colors.

My sister just this week saw one that was a solid bright sky blue.

I’ve never heard of hummingbirds that have this coloring.

That’s because there aren’t any. A red and green hummingbird in Michigan is almost certainly a male Ruby-throated, but there are no yellow or solid sky blue hummingbirds among the world’s 340-odd species. None. Anywhere. However, those bright colors are found in many tiny songbirds, including warblers, buntings, and yes, finches. I shared this information, suggesting a couple of field guides and Web sites, and received this reply:

You answered my question as far as these being known.  They were definitely hummingbirds.  they were to small for anything else and the yellow, red and green variety were eating from the feeder.  my daughters friend had hit one on the yellow ones with his car and killed it.  Do you have any suggestions on how to attract them so I can get a picture

Oh, they were small? and eating from a feeder? and one was dead? Well, that’s certainly compelling evidence for not one but two previously unknown hummingbird species in the unexplored wilds of Michigan. Can’t wait to see those pictures.

Rufous vs. Allen’s

No, it’s not the fight of the decade—it’s one of the thorniest bird ID problems in North America. Right now little orange and green hummingbirds are sweeping across the continent on their way south. Most are traveling through the Pacific and Intermountain flyways and will end up in Mexico, but a significant minority (hundreds) will stray east of the Rockies to delight and confuse migration watchers and winter hummingbird aficionados.

adult male Rufous with rufous back

If the back is less than half green (including entirely rufous), you can safely call it a Rufous without seeing the tail. (Note the green crown, which is normal, and the green gorget, which is an artifact of the angle.)

One of the most commonly repeated myths about hummingbird identification is that an orange hummingbird with a green back is an Allen’s. I was told this by a local birder on my first visit to southeastern Arizona in 1978, and on her authority I put Allen’s Hummingbird on my life list based on the little orange and green female-plumaged birds swarming around her feeders. There it remained until 1988, when I moved here and began to acquaint myself with the true depths of the problem.

Once I realized that in both Rufous and Allen’s all females and juvenile males have green backs, I scrubbed Allen’s from my life list. Over the next few years I learned through banding experience that a small percentage of adult male Rufous have enough green on their backs to be easily confused with Allen’s.

Yes, I know you don’t want to hear this, but take your fingers out of your ears and look at the photo at right (you may click the image to embiggen).

Notice the notched tip of R2 (the next-to-center tail feather)? Diagnostic for Rufous. Sorry.

The only safe, accurate way to distinguish between Rufous and Allen’s in any and every plumage is by the shapes of the tail feathers. You can see these when the birds fan their tails in combat or preen them. In Allen’s, all of the tail feathers are narrower than in Rufous, most noticeably the outer three. In Rufous, R2 has that distinctive notched tip in adult males, expressed as a “pinched” tip in most (but not all) adult females and juvenile males. To clarify, here are silhouettes of the adult male tails:


And here are juvenile males (note the green backs):


You can see how extremely subtle the differences are in juvenile males (adult females are similar)—not something you’re usually going to see in the field. Juvenile females are the most “generic” and can be impossible to identify even in hand. This is why it’s so important to determine the age and sex of the more difficult hummingbirds before you try to assign them to species. If it’s a female or juvenile male Rufous or Allen’s, best to fuggedaboudit unless you can get photos of the fanned tail.

It’s very common for orange-and-green hummingbirds observed east of the Rockies to be called Rufous in the absence of any documentation, based simply on expectation. Sometimes “probable Rufous,” sometimes “Selasphorus species” or “Rufous/Allen’s” (which we’ll get to in a moment), but all too often just “Rufous.” This can give the impression that an identification has been confirmed when it hasn’t, leading to much rarer birds (Allen’s, Broad-tailed, Calliope) being overlooked. A look at the range maps in A Field Guide to Hummingbirds will show you why it pays to know all of the Rufous doppelgangers’ field marks and check them out for yourself (documenting with a camera, where possible).

More conservative birders may go a bit too far the other way, calling any orange-and-green hummingbird “Selasphorus species” even when Broad-tailed (the oft-forgotten member of the genus) is readily ruled out. Once Broad-tailed has been eliminated from consideration, the most accurate label to use is “Rufous/Allen’s.” You’ll find this as an option on eBird and “Allen’s Hummingbird/Rufous Hummingbird” in the Christmas Bird Count historical results. If any orange-and-green hummingbirds occur within your local CBC circle but the compiler doesn’t use “Rufous/Allen’s” on tally sheets or in the final reports, please encourage them to do so.

Addendum 1: I’ve created galleries on Flickr with comments on each photo pointing out the key field marks that identify each bird as Rufous or Allen’s.

Allen’s gallery

Rufous gallery

Addendum 2: Since this post was published, Calliope Hummingbird has been moved to the genus Selasphorus, making “Selasphorus sp.” even less specific than it used to be.

Addendum 3: Though the Sibley guide illustrations point out an orange “eyebrow” on the side view of the adult female Allen’s but not on the (virtually identical) adult female Rufous, this is a field mark distinguishing Rufous and Allen’s from the gray-faced Broad-tailed and Calliope, not from each other.

* * * * * * * * * *

On a historical note, this time of year—Rufous time—always brings to mind the late Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Orange and green were the heraldic colors of these counterculture court jesters. Toward the end of Ken’s life, one of the networks came to his Plesant Hill, Oregon home for an interview. Ken took them out onto his property to show them the Pranksters’ original bus, “Further” (also spelled “Furthur”). When they reached the bus, Ken noticed a small shape buzzing around inside: a Rufous Hummingbird. Ken gently corralled the terrified creature and carried it to freedom outside Further’s door. I cried.

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Spare (me) the rods

This week’s episode of The History Channel’s cryptozoology series MonsterQuest, “Creatures from the 4th Dimension,” pretty much met my expectations, which were admittedly basement level. The subject was “rods,” hypothetical flying organisms supposedly invisible to the naked eye but frequently captured on video.

I first became aware of the wild speculation about rods (a.k.a. “flying rods,” “skyfish,” etc.) in the 1990s when a videographer announced finding unusual unidentified flying objects in video footage of base jumpers plummeting into Mexico’s Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of the Swallows, actually an enormous sinkhole). Any reasonable person with a basic understanding of photography would look at the images and say, “Wow, there sure were a lot of insects flying around the cave that day.” UFO buff Jose Escamilla had captured similar images and interpreted them as a previously unknown life form capable of supersonic speed and/or interdimensional phase-shifting. So much for Ockham’s Razor.

This phenomenon has already been thoroughly debunked as videographic distortion of flying insects and other fast-moving, out-of-focus objects, but MQ was obviously going to milk the “mystery” for as many ratings points as possible. Milk it they did, from interviews with self-described “Rod Man” Escamilla to largely unsuccessful wind-tunnel tests of model rods at Iowa State University.

One of the funniest segments was a TV news cameraman’s story of noticing a “rod” while reviewing tape of a tornado in progress. He interpreted a tiny bright streak of light as a huge object traveling at enormous speed into the storm. (To me, it looked like a small insect or wind-blown debris passing through a beam of light.) The idea that something would deliberately fly into such a storm freaked him out, and he managed to spread this hysteria to other station personnel. The incident climaxed with the station manager’s call to the FBI and confiscation of the tape by federal agents (Men In Black, one imagines) as possible evidence of a threat to national security. Naturally, the feds had no comment on the incident, either out of embarrassment at wasting taxpayer money or to avoid tipping the government’s hand in the search for Arthropoda bin Laden.

The saddest segment, as well as the one of most interest to me, covered MQ’s investigation of the reasonable explanation that at least some “rods” are out-of-focus birds in flight. The producers recruited a birder and an ornithologist to help them capture images of a hummingbird using a normal video camera and a high-speed camera mounted side by side. Much to the birder’s embarrassment, her feeding station was deserted thanks to an accipiter that had been hanging around. The intrepid MQ crew soldiered on, making do with video of her and the ornithologist speculating that hummingbirds would be the birds most likely to be a source of rod phenomena but noting that their exclusively Western Hemisphere distribution precludes them as an explanation for the Chinese video the producers were using as an example. They also noted that the images in the video looked more like insects than birds of any sort.

In its last few minutes, the program finally got around to taking the dual-camera setup to a likely location for insects. It was at night, and they had to literally beat the bushes, but once the bugs took flight the normal camera captured perfect images of “rods.” On the high-speed camera, one particularly classic image was revealed to be… a moth.

Case closed? Of course not. Escamilla dismisses the debunkers by saying that he’s presented only the “visual evidence,” so the skeptics are not basing their analysis on all of the data. Well, where’s the rest? If there’s more compelling evidence than the easily-explained video images, why not put it out there for the scientific community to examine?

Obviously, people have a huge appetite for such nonsense, and the format (a dramatic buildup followed by a low-key debunking) guarantees an audience among both the gullible and skeptical (they lured me in, didn’t they?). It’s too bad that The History Channel is so desperate for ratings that it’s willing to run sensationalistic fluff with so little connection to its other programming.

But back to the bird connection for a moment. MonsterQuest also includes an episode on reports of gigantic birds in which the evidence includes footage of an obvious Turkey Vulture. The sheer number of reported sightings of animals that shouldn’t exist or at least shouldn’t be where they were reported demonstrates the all-too-human desire to apply extraordinary explanations to ordinary phenomena. Naturally, this carries over to birding. Haven’t we all tried at one time or another to make a poorly seen and/or unusually plumaged bird into something rarer than it actually was? To paraphrase the immortal Harry Nilsson, sometimes we see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear.

I regularly field inquiries from people who believe they’ve seen unusual hummingbirds, but some are more unusual than others. The typical description is of something noticeably smaller than a run-of-the-mill hummingbird but behaving exactly as a hummingbird does. Some believe that they’ve seen “baby hummingbirds,” while others have read or heard about the Bee and/or Bumblebee hummingbirds and interpret the names a bit too literally (neither of these birds is as small as its insect namesake) . Sometimes a report comes from outside this hemisphere, where hummingbirds don’t exist in the wild (at least not in the last few million years).

For many of these inquires, all that’s necessary is to steer the person to illustrations of a likely candidate among the hawk moths. Other times it helps to explain that baby hummingbirds are virtually full grown before they’re capable of feeding themselves, that Bee and Bumblebee hummingbirds don’t occur anywhere near the sighting location, and/or that no hummingbird species anywhere in the world has antennae or more than two legs. In some cases, no evidence I can present will shake the notion that the critter in question was a rare bird and not a common insect. It’s not hard to imagine these same people hearing a debunking of “rods” and saying, “Well, maybe some of them are insects, but what I saw definitely wasn’t.”

This familiar scenario strayed even closer to cryptozoology last year when I received a forwarded request for help in finding a photo of a particular kind of hummingbird. The person making the inquiry had rescued a hummingbird in western Montana years before and wanted a photo of such a bird as a memento of the event. She described it as “as red as a cardinal” and had already rejected the possibility of Rufous Hummingbird. I assured her that the adult male Rufous was the only logical candidate given her description as well as the area in question, and that no hummingbird anywhere in the world is the same shade of red as a cardinal.

“That you know of,” she retorted. “Tell your people up north to keep their eyes open. We are still finding new animals every day.”

True, even the occasional new hummingbird, but these discoveries take place in remote tropical wildernesses, not in Montana. A bright red migratory bird with an attraction to garden flowers and feeders would have a vanishingly small chance of escaping notice for two centuries in such a well-studied corner of North America. It’s a similar problem with giant birds, Sasquatch, and the Loch Ness Monster and its kin. Even the “black panthers” reported in the U.S. and Canada are mostly domestic cats whose dark color makes them appear larger, not escaped exotic cats or near-mythical melanistic Mountain Lions.

I suppose it does no harm for someone to believe that she held an unknown species of hummingbird in her hand, as long as she doesn’t make a cult out of it, but it’s always a letdown when even the most persuasive evidence fails to convince.