A hummingbird gets ready to take in some nourishment. Photo by Melissa Kim

Where o where have the hummingbirds gone?

Is anyone else noticing a lack of hummingbirds this year? I usually see one or two a day, but this year I’m lucky if I see one once a week.

Asked by readers from York to Eastport

Hummingbirds, with Doug Hitchcox xolumn Ariana van den Akker

Easily the most common question I receive is “where are the birds?!” One species that observers are especially attuned to is the ruby-throated hummingbird, typically the only species of hummingbird we see in Maine. They are easy to attract with a simple feeder (filled with a mix of one part sugar diluted with four parts water), and it’s fun to watch their amazing, and fairly rare-in-nature, hovering abilities. They arrive in early May and are typically common in yards by Mother’s Day. But then by Father’s Day they are gone! Disappeared, I tell you! From the hummingbird’s perspective, this is good news.

Hummingbirds eat a lot of insects. Studies looking at the fecal contents show that up to 60 percent of their diet consists of insect matter. Insects are an especially important part of the diet of a developing chick, so the adult female is going to be spending most of her time foraging for those little packs of protein, rather than slurping sugar water at your feeder. Male hummingbirds won’t win any “Dad of the Year” awards. They don’t contribute any parental care and are instead focused on defending a territory with food, and hopefully one with enough food to attract a female.

So don’t worry, the hummingbirds are out there, they are just taking advantage of naturally-occurring food, which is generally more abundant and has a higher metabolic reward than sugar water. It won’t be long until hummingbirds will be back at your feeders. We can predict their detectability by looking at citizen science projects like Cornell’s eBird (ebird.org) and looking at frequency charts for ruby-throated hummingbirds in Maine. Following their peak in spring migration, the percentage of reports that include hummingbirds drops from 20 percent to below 10 percent in June and most of July. By the end of July and through August, frequency is back above 20 percent until their sudden drop during migration in September. If you really want to see hummingbirds later this summer, let jewelweed (spotted touch-me-not) grow around your yard – they love it!

Color variation a sign of parents, not a different species

I was wondering if you can tell me something about a male hairy woodpecker that I saw at my bird feeder yesterday. I checked my bird book and it looked exactly like the photo, except everywhere that was supposed to be white was more of a tan. Would that have been a different kind of woodpecker, or a hairy woodpecker that had a slight variation of color?

Mary Ellen McCollumn, Eliot, Maine

A very astute observation, Mary Ellen! I’m always impressed by people’s recognition of plumage aberrations, albinism being the most reported. There is an amazing range of things that can change an individual’s appearance. Hairy (and downy) woodpeckers can be especially confusing as they vary across their range.

Dedicated readers might recall my April 19 column discussing subspecies — there are at least 17 subspecies of hairy woodpeckers! The villosus (meaning hairy or shaggy) group that we see in Maine, also called the “eastern” hairy woodpecker, is typically a very contrasting black-and-white bird, with prominent white spots on the wing coverts (the small feathers that give the wing contour).

But if you were to see a hairy woodpecker along the U.S.’s Pacific coast, you’d be looking at the harisi group, which has a brown-gray wash where ours is white, and the wing coverts are almost all black. Fun fact: this is common among many species, and explained by an ecogeographical principle known as Gloger’s Rule, which states that species that occur in more humid environments tend to be darker than those in less humid ones – yay, science! These western hairy woodpeckers may be illustrated in your North American bird field guide, usually called “Pacific.” Unfortunately this leads to a lot of confusion when an aberrant bird is spotted in Maine.

So are these western hairy woodpeckers showing up in Maine? No. The real answer lies with what our resident woodpeckers are doing right now: nesting! Woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters, meaning they make their own holes (cavities) in trees to nest in. (Secondary cavity nesters, like swallows, wrens, and bluebirds, will use those cavities in subsequent years.)

By mid-June we start to see a lot of reports of baby woodpeckers. The forest is filled with their persistent begging calls coming from within those new cavities. The adults are constantly making trips in and out, delivering food to the quickly developing chicks, and with every trip, they come in contact with the tree, rubbing their feathers along the rim of that cavity. Our otherwise black-and-white woodpeckers become stained by the tannins from the tree, making them look more brown, or sometimes quite yellow. Not long from now, usually in August, hairy woodpeckers will begin their molt, and grow in a nice new set of “normal” black-and-white feathers again. So the short answer to Mary Ellen’s question: Not a different kind of hairy woodpecker, just a busy parent!

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to [email protected] and visit www.maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes, and other programs about Maine wildlife and habitat.


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