Tracking Western Hummingbirds in the East

Hummingbird History

In the late 1970s, a legendary hummingbird bander by the name of Nancy Newfield began reporting unexpected winter occurrences of several western species of hummingbirds at gardens and feeders near her home in Metairie, Louisiana.  Beginning in 1990, when National Aviary Ornithologist, Bob Mulvihill, was working for the renowned bird-banding program at Powdermill Nature Reserve near Ligonier, he caught and banded Pennsylvania’s first-ever Rufous Hummingbird.

Ornithologists began to suspect that some of these western hummingbirds must regularly pass through Pennsylvania and other eastern states in the late fall on their way to the Gulf Coast--in 1993 the Hummer Bird Study Group, a consortium of hummingbird banders, was created by the late Bob Sargent and his wife, Martha, of Clay, Alabama.   

Hummingbird Banding Reveals New Migrations

A small numbered metal leg band placed around the leg of a bird (even one small enough to fit the tiny leg of a hummingbird) is one way that scientists can track these migratory movements—a hummingbird banded in Pennsylvania might be later caught by a researcher in Louisiana, and vice versa.  Mulvihill is one of a handful of licensed hummingbird banders in Pennsylvania who now work cooperatively to track the occurrence and movement of western hummingbird species. Wherever and whenever a “suspicious” hummingbird shows up in his territory (all of western PA and adjacent parts of Ohio and West Virginia), he is always ready to take off with his hummingbird trap and banding equipment. 

By suspicious, we mean any hummingbird seen in western PA after October 10.  We know that 99.99% of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have already migrated well south of Pennsylvania by early October, so a hummingbird seen after that date actually is very likely to be a different species.  Throughout the state seven different hummingbird species have now been documented—amazingly, including even a Bahama Woodstar! 

From 2011-2014, Mulvihill has caught more than twenty Rufous Hummingbirds between October 16 and December 19, including five right here in the Pittsburgh area (see map below).  Incredibly, one proved to be a hummingbird banded the winter before in Louisiana by none other than Nancy Newfield!

Be A Hummingbird Helper!

If you've been feeding hummingbirds all summer long, just keep your feeder up, even after it seems like all your hummingbirds have left (most of which will have by the end of September).  If you've already taken your feeder down already, put it back up!  Mix up some fresh sugar water (four parts water to one part plain sugar) and leave the feeder(s) out until at least Thanksgiving.  To keep the nectar from freezing, you can bring the feeder in at night and put it out the next morning; or you can keep two feeders, on inside and one outside, and switch them as needed.  If you do this, you just might look out one crisp October or wintry-looking November day and be surprised to see a hummingbird at your feeder!

Importantly, if you do attract a late hummingbird, or if you hear about a friend who has been seeing a hummingbird after October 10, then contact Bob Mulvihill right away!  Email him at or call him:  412-258-1148 (office) or 412-522-5729 (cell).