Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird. © Terri Underhill
Rufous Hummingbird. © Terri Underhill

by John Shackford

From what I have read the male Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is a beautiful little gem of a bird.  To the best of my recollection (not too trustworthy these days) I have never seen this hummer.  Selasphorus means “to bear a flame…the males of this genus have iridescent gorgets that make them appear to be carrying a flame on their throat” (J. E. Holloway, 2003. Dictionary of Birds of the United States).  Rufus, of course means rufous.

The adult male Rufous Hummingbird is very distinctive, with its rufous back and a throat that glistens red in good light; but some males have green backs and, in our part of the range, are not safely told from male Allen’s Hummingbirds.  Females and young Rufous Hummers have green backs, a spotted throat and buffy-orange on the sides of the breast and at the base of the tail.  Again, in our part of the range, they are not safely told from female and young Allen’s Hummingbirds.  

The Rufous Hummingbird has an interesting relationship with Oklahoma, including central Oklahoma:  According to Sutton (1967, Oklahoma Birds) it has only been found in Oklahoma as a “late summer visitant and fall transient recorded from July 1 to November 3; no spring record.”  Date Guide to the Occurrences of Birds in Oklahoma (J. A. Grzybowski, 2009) gives the occurrence of the species, in every part of Oklahoma except the southeast, as a rare fall migrant from July 22 to November 20.  So this featured Bird of the Month should be watched for now at your hummingbird feeders.  Several days after I had decided to write about the Rufous Hummingbird for September, one was reported on the OK Bird net.  Also note that they have been reported up to November 22, a long time after our usual hummers have left.  That brings up an interesting point—if you do leave your feeder up into the late fall, any hummer you might see then is likely to be a rarity.

Although most of the population of this hummer winters in southern Mexico, a small number winter every year along the coast of the southeastern U.S.; these birds—headed for the southeastern U.S.—probably account for most, if not all, of the birds found in Oklahoma in the fall.  It is somewhat curious to me that there are no spring records for Oklahoma.  One would think that if the bird sometimes migrates through our state in fall, a few winter survivors of this population might take a similar path northward in the spring—through Oklahoma.  The explanation may be that the birds that migrate over Oklahoma to the southeastern coast of the U. S. do not survive the winter—or perhaps so few do—that they have been absent or too thin to be picked up in our state in the spring.  Another explanation may be that “our” birds move westward south of us in the spring and rejoin their more routinely transient birds heading north in the western U. S.   

The nesting information that A. C. Bent (1989, Life histories of North American cuckoos, hummingbirds and their allies) gives on this species was quite interesting to me.  The Rufous Hummingbird nests further north than any other hummer, reaching Alaska and southern Yukon.  Its breeding range goes southward from there, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains and westward to the Pacific Coast, to southern Oregon and northwestern Wyoming.  As a breeding bird (according to Bent) it is sometimes colonial, “as many as 10 nests in a small patch of gorse.  The nest is near the ground as a rule….being placed on the lowest branch…that has a sharp downward bend…”  (I only had a vague understanding of the plant named gorse; when I looked it up it is a non-native plant—brought over by an Irishman wanting a bit of home; it has become a very noxious plant in parts of Oregon at least; it has inch long thorns that form nearly impenetrable thickets, is evergreen, grows up to about 6 feet tall, and is extremely hard to kill.) 

The Rufous Hummingbird, during migration (again according to Bent), “is sometimes very abundant at high altitudes, wherever it can find flowers in bloom; it has been seen as high as 12,600 feet” in elevation.  Watch for this Oklahoma migrant at your feeders this fall, and let us know about it if you see one