It’s inevitable. Whenever it is in town, we get calls asking about the daring and feisty “brown” hummer that is driving away all the others from the feeder. One of the most identifiable behaviors of the 3-1/2 to 4 inch long Rufous hummingbird is the aggressive defense of a feeding territory by either gender. They’ve been known to attack blackbirds, thrushes, and even chipmunks that get too close.
A solid cinnamon - brown back serves to distinguish the male Rufous from the similar Allen’s hummingbird. (Many males have some green on the back. So the presence of a green back patch is NOT indicative of an Allen's. You have to look at the tail R2 and R5 to be sure).He has some rufous at the base of its head, on his sides and tail. His gorget looks like burnished gold in the right light. His breast is white. The female Rufous has a green back and crown. She can’t be reliably told from the female Allen’s in the field. Her chest is white, her throat streaked, and she has rufous on her sides and at the base of her tail. She also looks a lot like the female Broad-tailed hummingbird.
The Rufous has been observed in every state and province except Hawaii, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island. It is found nesting in Alaska - farther north than any other hummer nests. It breeds from southeastern Alaska, but also on the lower half of the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska and the southern Yukon, British Columbia, southwestern Alberta, and western Montana south through Washington and Oregon to the Trinity Mountains of northwestern California and southern Idaho. We suspect it will move slowly northward with "global warming." Therefore, the map should show the lower half of the Kenai colored in. In the winter, it is found mostly in Mexico, as far south as Vera Cruz and Guerrero and possibly into Panama. We have heard reports of the rare Rufous wintering in Tucson, coming in for nectar at urban feeders. During migration, it can be seen in many places along the way. Besides this huge range, the little bird is an amazing wanderer. Reports of it exist in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan, Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nova Scotia. In winter, many more birds are now going back up the east coast to Maryland and Delaware through the Carolinas.
With such a large range and its reputation as a vagabond, its migration schedule is complicated. In the springtime, it travels northward almost entirely along the pacific coast. Some northerly migrants pass through Arizona in the spring. It also avoids Texas and New Mexico when moving northward. It passes through California from February to May. By March it reaches Oregon and Washington. By early April it is in British Columbia. By mid-April, it is in Alaska, and the end of April or early May sees it in Idaho and Montana. In the fall, it leaves Alaska by late August or early September, and British Columbia and Washington by late September and early October. In California, it migrates southward from late June through August in the mountains. The birds leave from Montana in August and September. From Idaho, the males leave in July, followed by immatures and females in August and September. They go through Colorado in mid-July and August. New Mexico hosts them in August and September. In Arizona, we see them in the White Mountains from July to October. In Texas, migration occurs from late July to the end of November, with a few individuals remaining in Big Bend, along the coast, and in the Rio Grande delta through the winter months. The fall migration features a lot of straying from the established routes. This is when they show up in places like Florida. Be prepared to see them anywhere!!!
During migration, the Rufous takes advantage of many different habitats. In California, it is found from lowland streams through the brushy foothills and chaparral to mountain ridges at the timberline. In Canada, the seacoast, coastal islands, and valley bottoms all the way up to the meadows above the timberline are haunts for the Rufous. The migrating birds use lowland plains, high mountain meadows and urban gardens. Breeding birds primarily use coniferous forests, but they also can occupy the forest edges and mountain meadows.
Along with its extraordinary range and diverse habitats, the Rufous feeds on many different kinds of flowers, especially red flowers. It is so attracted to the color red that it will investigate red hats, towels, bandanas, etc. Gooseberries, currants, manzanitas, eucalyptus, tree-tobacco, flichsia, orange and peach blossoms, mints, columbines, agaves, ocotillo, Indian paintbrush, penstemon, figwort, madrone, salmon-berry, thimble-berry, and honeysuckles are all frequented where they occur. Feeders are readily used. Insects are gleaned. No matter what the food source, the pugnacious Rufous rigorously defends his or her feeding territory.
The males arrive several weeks before the females in their northern breeding range and stake out territories. Like many hummers, the male attracts a mate by a pendulum-like flight. He scribes a complete slanted oval, broader at the bottom than at the top. He accompanies the downswing with a mechanical buzz produced by his wings, followed by a staccato whine and ending in a rattle. The displays of the Allen’s hummingbird are similar to our ears, but our machines tell us of differing overtones. The displays are different enough to the birds and are considered species-specific.
Like food sources and habitats, the nests can be found in a wide variety of places. Some are close to the ground in blackberry bushes. Some are up over 45 feet in tall fir trees. A low drooping branch of a conifer is often used. Often the nest is placed above a path or - gully. It has been known to nest in loose colonies of up to ten nests in western Washington. In the coastal areas of Washington and Oregon, overhead protection from rain is a consideration. Embankments with overhanging vines and a southern exposure or dry clusters of roots from upturned trees are utilized there. Knots in a hanging rope in a woodshed or the wires of a suspended electric light bulb have even been used for a nest site.
The nest itself is a 1-1/2” to 2 inch diameter cup of cottony plant down, mosses, and shreds of bark, bound together with spiders’ silk, and decorated with lichens. Sometimes a new nest is built on top of the previous year’s nest. From April to July 2 white eggs are laid. Incubation is the sole responsibility of the female. There is one very rare report of a male Rufous incubating eggs. The female sits almost constantly, taking only 20 minute breaks. The incubation period has not been determined. By the time her babies are 4 days old, she leaves the young for about 3/4 of an hour at a time. Nestlings fledge after about 20 days.
There are reports of these intrepid little birds wintering here in Tucson and in southern Texas. Usually kind humans who provide them with nectar in feeders support them when the temperatures drop. We enjoy all of their antics at our feeders when they come through on their long migration. We add more feeders to accommodate more birds at that time. Feeders may well be a factor in the fact that this highly adaptable bird has now been seen in every state in the continental United States and the provinces of Canada.