Ruby-Throated Hummingbird by Anubandh Gaitonde

Watch for fall hummingbirds

(published 10-10-17)

On October 27, 2002, a surprise guest appeared in my yard: a hummingbird.

Of course, I’d seen many hummers in the yard before then, and many since. But never in October.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared. I’d put away my hummingbird feeder a few weeks earlier. Too bad, because I’m sure my late-migrating visitor could have used a boost. Flying to Mexico takes fuel.

I’ve been thinking about hummingbirds a lot since attending the annual Hummingbird Fest in Lemont. Held August 19 at the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, it was my first birding event devoted to a single species, the ruby-throated hummingbird. And the parking lot filled up early.

In our region, the hummingbird population tends to peak in August, when migrating birds join the locally nesting birds and their summer offspring. Festival organizers know it’s the ideal time to celebrate one of nature’s most fascinating creatures.

Bird bander Vern Kleen shared his passion and expertise at
the Hummingbird Fest in Lemont.
A featured activity at Sagawau was a bird banding demonstration by Vern Kleen, one of just three people with a license to band hummingbirds in Illinois. He’s also the grand master of bird banding in our state, having applied tiny aluminum bands—each with a unique number—to the legs of some 140,000 birds since 1960. Of those, 36,000 were hummingbirds.

Banding plays a key role in bird study and conservation. While relatively few banded birds are recaptured (less than 2%), those that are reveal migration patterns, population trends, species longevity and more.

Plenty of hummers were zooming around Sagawau but few gave themselves up for banding. Catching them is tricky. The banders use a hanging trap—essentially a mesh cage with a small opening and nectar feeder inside to lure the birds.

Kleen banded only four hummingbirds—well below expectations even during a year, he says, when overall hummingbird numbers are down. Some 26 hummers were captured, banded and released at the 2012 festival.

The low level of banding activity, however, had an upside: It gave us more time to sponge knowledge from Kleen, whose enthusiasm for hummingbirds is contagious. Between bird bandings, he shared facts about the little dynamos and answered questions from the audience tirelessly. As he did so, hummingbirds zipped over and around us, often landing on nectar feeders just a few feet away.

I certainly learned a few things myself. For example, a hummingbird’s two biggest predators are the bullfrog and praying mantis. Up to 40% of a hummer’s diet is tiny insects like aphids and gnats. And the coolest nugget of all: Hummingbirds are known to build their walnut-sized nests near the nests of Cooper’s hawks. The hawks serve as a shield, unwittingly protecting the hummers and their eggs from potential predators.

Magic touch: Festival attendees of all ages lined up to feel a
hummingbird's heartbeat.
Kleen narrated the delicate process as he banded each bird. He’d then share the bird with the audience, providing close looks and even letting us feel its heartbeat by holding the chest to our fingertips. Talk about cool: Feeling the vibration of 1,200 beats per minute leaves a lasting impression.

Four lucky observers experienced the thrill of releasing a newly banded bird. Kleen placed the hummers in open hands where they’d sit for 10 or 15 seconds before zipping away to continue their busy, fast-paced lives.  

The only common hummingbird east of the Mississippi River is the ruby-throated. However, in October and later, the odds improve for spotting a vagrant species from the west. Watch for rufous hummingbirds, in particular. Last year, a rufous visited a Downers Grove feeder for several weeks in October.

It’s a myth that leaving out a hummingbird feeder will delay migration and put birds in danger. Even late-migrating hummers know their limits. They will eventually continue their long journey south, and the food you provide can help power their success.

My latest backyard birding goal is to attract a hummingbird in the month of November. Kleen recommends leaving a feeder out until Thanksgiving or later. No need to fill it all the way, he says, just keep some nectar fresh and available—the clear kind, without red dye. Bring the feeder inside at night to avoid freezing.

If a late-fall hummingbird comes calling, try to snap a photo in case it’s a rarity. Kleen and his colleagues in the North American Hummingbird Group try to band vagrant species whenever possible to see if they are the same ones showing up elsewhere or if they return in future seasons.

Last month, Kleen rushed to a homeowner’s backyard in the Springfield area where he successfully banded a broad-billed hummingbird, only the third one ever documented in Illinois.

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved