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Researchers Abuzz Over Visiting Western Hummingbirds

By Molly Daly

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Forget about a partridge in a pear tree. This holiday season, if you're lucky, you could have a hummingbird spending part of the fall or early winter in your backyard.

A number of western hummingbirds are visiting yards right now in in Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties in the Delaware Valley.

After our native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have gone south, Western species, like Rufous, Allen's, and Anna's Hummingbirds, move in. Naturalist and author Scott Weidensaul says their numbers grow every year, and this year there're more than 60 in Pennsylvania alone.

"What's happening here is we're essentially seeing the evolution of a new migratory route, and a new wintering area, for these species of hummingbirds. You have these birds that are migrating east; they wind up in the Mid-Atlantic region in October, November and December, and then slowly, as the really cold winter weather comes in, they get forced farther and farther south," Weidensaul explains.

Hummingbird Invasion
This female rufous hummingbird was banded November 21 in Elkins Park, part of a continental study to track the changing migration routes of several species of western hummingbirds, which are increasingly common in the East. (Credit: Scott Weidensaul)

In a few weeks, they'll head south to the Gulf states, by March or April, they'll head back to their breeding grounds.

The wintering western birds are coming to backyard feeders, but Weidensaul says 70 percent of their diet is insects.

"A lot of these hummingbirds get noticed when somebody forgets to take down their feeder and they realize, in October or November, 'My goodness, there's a hummingbird out there.' They do not depend on those feeders and they can survive quite well without them, although, obviously, the feeder is a handy source of easy food for them, just like it's a handy source of food if you put up a feeder for chickadees and titmice in your yard," he says.

Weidensaul is one of about a half-dozen federally licensed hummingbird banders in Pennsylvania who harmlessly trap and mark them with a tiny band.

"It weighs no more on that bird than a man's wristwatch weighs on him. So it doesn't weigh the bird down, it doesn't hamper its movements or activities at all," says Weidensaul.

Banding has enabled scientists to track the birds' movements and connect the dots, sometimes, with jaw-dropping results.

"My friend Fred Dietrich down in Florida banded a Rufous Hummingbird in Tallahassee a couple of winters ago, which was recovered alive and healthy by a bander in Chenega Bay, Alaska, about 6 months later. That bird had flown more than 3,500 miles from its wintering site all the way back up to its breeding grounds in Prince William Bay in Alaska," says Weidensaul.

Hummingbird Invasion
Federal hummingbird bands with penny (Credit: Scott Weidensaul)

You may be surprised that these birds, that weigh a little more than a penny, are as tough as old boots.

"They're tiny little birds, but they're incredibly tough. That's one of the misconceptions about hummingbirds. These are ferocious little birds; they're ferociously tough little birds. If you've ever watched hummingbirds fighting at a backyard feeder, they don't take any guff from anybody," he explains.

Weidensaul says although well-meaning people may want to help the birds, they help them best by letting them go about their business.

"These birds do not need to be rescued. They know what they're doing. Most of the ones that I've banded this fall have been adult birds, they've had their passport stamped a couple of times, they've done this before. They haven't forgotten to migrate, after all, they've already come three or four thousand miles to get here," says Weidensaul.

Listen to extended interview:

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