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Capitol Hill Aviary | Rufous hummingbirds take up summer residence on the Hill

Untitled, originally uploaded by Minette Layne.

If you watch flowers and feeders closely at this time of year, you may see a hummingbird that typically visits the Hill only in late spring and early summer: the rufous hummingbird.

Rufous hummingbirds are tiny orange and green birds with bright red patches under the chin. The females tend to be paler than males, and their red throat patch is much smaller. As with all hummingbirds, the colors of the rufous hummingbird are hard to see in shadow, but they tend to be brilliant in bright sunlight.

Rufous hummingbirds make a 3,800-mile round trip journey from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest and back every year. Although some other birds fly farther in miles, the rufous hummingbird’s trip is amazingly long for a bird of its small size. The round-trip journey is 78,470,000 times the length of its body.

The migration pattern of the rufous hummingbird appears largely dependent on flowers. From Mexico, these birds work their way up the coast when wildflowers begin to bloom in early spring. By April or May, they stop to breed in the Pacific Northwest—sometimes even here on the Hill. They make their southbound journey through the alpine regions of the Cascades or, more commonly, the Rocky Mountains during July and August, when wildflowers are abundant there.

Most birds that hang out in urban environments like Capitol Hill adapt easily to human pressures. Because of this, the majority of birds profiled so far in CHS Aviary have stable or increasing populations. The rufous hummingbird is an exception to this rule. Although the population is still large enough to be classified Least Concern, ornithologists have noted a marked population decline over the past 50 years. Nobody has yet proven why this is happening, but habitat destruction and climate change are possible explanations.

Rufous hummingbirds live up to about 8 years, and they are capable of remembering their favorite feeding sites over long periods. If you have a rufous hummingbird in your yard this year, it may be the same one you saw last year or the year before. Individuals sometimes fail to appear for a year or two, especially if their food sources are scanty along the migration route, but they sometimes manage to return to a favored feeding site later on.

If you want to see a rufous hummingbird, take a walk in an area with a lot of flowers. Most of the parks on the Hill are good options, as is the Seattle University campus. As you go, look out for the more common Anna’s hummingbird, too.

Interested in learning more?

  • Check out the rufous hummingbird’s life history and vocalizations at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • The rufous hummingbird sightings listed on this map provide a rough sense of the rate of migration into the Pacific Northwest this year. Note that the map does not include data for Mexico, where most rufous hummingbirds spend the winter.
  • This article discusses the possible effects of climate change on rufous hummingbird migration.
  • This article discusses observed changes in rufous hummingbirds’ winter range over the past couple of decades.

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7 years ago

Melissa – thanks for the wonderful post! I’m wowed by the information about the rufous’s incredible annual journey …astounding! I see hummingbirds – i think ruby-throated – on my deck over Lake Union fairly often. Without fail, by the time I get my camera out, they’ve already gone on to their next adventure ;)

Much obliged for again sharing your expertise & love of the ornithological world with us!


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