Stray Hummingbird Stays Till Spring

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A vagrant Rufous Hummingbird perched on a branch.
The Rufous Hummingbird near 81st Street.
© David Ottavio

When a stray Rufous Hummingbird from the West came to the Museum in early December, no one thought she’d stay through snow, wind, and below-freezing nights—let alone until spring.

Still in the bushes on the equinox, this “vagrant,” the official term for migrators outside their range, is the first stray hummingbird in recent memory to overwinter in New York. En route to her wintering grounds in Mexico, she likely miscalculated the angle of her flight path south, landing her in the Museum’s shrubs outside the 81st Street entrance.

Rufous Hummingbirds can survive moderately cold weather and spend their summers in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. On top of this species’ hardy nature, New York’s mild winter, a blooming Mahonia japonica plant in the yard with ample nectar, and a little help from Museum exhibition preparator Jason Brougham, who set up a feeder filled with sugar water, carried this Rufous through the winter days. To weather cold nights, hummingbirds find shelter and enter a miniature hibernation known as torpor, where their body temperature and metabolism drop dramatically.

“We’ve seen more strays in recent years,” explains Joe DiCostanzo, a research assistant in the Museum’s Department of Ornithology who leads bird walks in Central Park for the Museum and has been tracking the hummingbird’s progress. “It could be that more birds are behaving this way—or that there are more birders.”

The hummer has drawn a network of bird enthusiasts to the Museum and Central Park, where she has been spotted occasionally. Hummingbird hopefuls from upstate New York and Long Island often call the Department of Ornithology to be sure she’s still there before making the trip. Photographers can be seen regularly at the 81st Street entrance, cameras ready on tripods to snap her glossy green back or reddish throat patch. 

Upon the bird’s arrival, some proposed that she be captured and transported to a warmer climate or cared for until the cold nights passed. DiCostanzo, among others, insisted that nature be allowed to take its course. “The great thing about wild animals is that they can’t read,” he says. “So they don’t know what they’re not supposed to be able to do.”