Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Oak Park’s Rufous Hummingbird January 31, 2012

By Eric D. Gyllenhaal

This page includes both updates through January 31, 2012, and background information about “Opal,” the Rufous Hummingbird that started visiting the Gyllenhaal’s backyard feeders in south Oak Park, Illinois, on Monday, November 21, 2011, and left on Friday, January 6, 2012.

It’s basically an archive at this point: Some of the links may no longer work, but I have left them as is, just for the record.


Oak Park’s Rufous Hummingbird has not been seen since early Friday morning, January 6.

We hope she headed south, and she made it to another yard with hummingbird feeders or flowers in bloom, or at least to a woods with active Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (see

Here’s how one hummingbird bander describes Opal’s chances: “To be honest, your bird left at a perfect time.  It’s been warm here last few days, and forecast is for warm, above-freezing temps for the next several days in the south.  [She] should be able to make it to the gulf states if it tries even without feeders on the way.” Of course, our dream is that she will be recaptured some day, so we’ll know she’s safe.

Martha Irvine of Associated Press did a really nice story that covers Opal’s last days in our yard, and includes video taken the morning before her departure. AOL was one of the first places to put it online:

Birding e-mail lists for nearby states described at least four instances where long-term Rufous Hummingbird visitors left within a few days of Opal’s departure. That included the Rufous Hummingbird that was visiting a feeder in Sterling, Illinois, which left on the same day as our hummer:

Here’s a quote from an Alan Chartier post on a Michigan e-mail list: “Banding recoveries in the deep south also show a two-stage wintering strategy for Rufous Hummingbirds, where they arrive maybe in August-October at one site, then around Christmas or New Years they all move to a second site where they remain until March before heading back northwest. The majority of records of Rufous in the Upper Midwest follow this same pattern, though it is certain that a few of these birds do not survive (that should be expected of any species…).”

And here’s a story about another female Rufous Hummingbird that Alan Chartier banded in Ohio and then re-captured three years later, only 15 miles from where it was first banded. If this Ohio/Florida hummer can make such a long and seemingly improbable journey, it gives me even more hope for our hummingbird’s future:

So, was our backyard Rufous Hummingbird some kind of ill-adapted freak, or part of a larger evolutionary trend? A web page by Scott Weidensaul, an author and hummingbird researcher, suggests that latter: “Changes in the landscape, and the ever-warmer winters of the past century, may be combining to make the East and especially the Southeast perfectly hospitable to these birds. Those that survive and return to their breeding grounds are, in all likelihood, passing on their once-unfavorable genes to new generations.” Check it out:

We’ll be leaving at least one hummingbird feeder up through the rest of this winter, and for many winters to come.



Can I look for Oak Park’s Rufous Hummingbird?

At least for the next few days, human visitors will be allowed to enter our backyard and watch for the Rufous Hummingbird–but she may be gone for good!

Our house is at 1003 South Elmwood, Oak Park, Illinois. That’s one block west of Ridgeland and a half block south of Garfield (the frontage road on the south side of I-290). There is usually lots of parking on the street (and it’s free).

Please sign in at the small table on our front porch (even if you saw it in 2011). Then walk along the north side of our house and through the gate to our very small and very messy backyard. Please watch your step on our back deck–it’s slippery or even icy in the morning!

The feeder hangs from a trellis over our back deck. There’s a row of chairs where you can stand or sit and wait for the next feeder visit. Please do not stand closer than the chairs, as the hummer comes less often and feeds for shorter intervals when humans get too close.

Between feedings the hummer often hangs out in the yard just north of ours, in vines and bare shrubs along a chain link fence. She’s been moving around a lot in this space, at least during the past few days. (Please be VERY respectful of our neighbors.)

If you bring the kids and they get bored, they can collect up to five specimens from our Collector’s Garden out front:

So far about 300 people have stopped by our home to see the hummer.


What kind is it?
The Oak Park hummingbird was originally identified as a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, based on evidence discussed here:   That identification has been called into question. One popular hypothesis was that it was a hybrid of two related species of hummingbirds, perhaps a Rufous crossed with a Broad-tailed. The arguments for that hypothesis are first discussed on this page of Illinois Birders’ Forum:  The discussion continues on that thread, even now that detailed photos and measurements are available.

On Friday, Dec. 9, Vern Kleen came to the our yard to capture and band the hummingbird, and that’s when Field Museum folks collected their DNA sample.  Greg Neise posted photos and measurements from the banding on Illinois Birder’s Forum: About five days later Josh Engel posted the first test results from the DNA sample. He explains how he figured out that the hummingbird is a female:

By Friday, December 17, Oak Park’s hummingbird was no longer a mystery. Field Museum’s Josh Engel completed the DNA analysis and discovered that she is  100% Rufous Hummingbird! No wonder she’s doing so well in the cold. Josh explained his conclusions, and how he reached them, in this post on Illinois Birders’ Forum:


How do you feed and care for the hummingbird?
We offer two feeders to the hummer: One with sugar water for energy (3 to 1 ratio of water to sugar), and one with a mix of Nektar-plus and sugar water, to supply protein and other nutrients. Every night we wash and disinfect the Nektar-plus feeder and then mix a fresh Nekar-plus solution at about 6:30 a.m., right before the hummer starts feeding. We change the sugar water every couple of days. Both feeders have heat lamps. When it’s warmer or cold but sunny, the hummer has been catching its own bugs between liquid feedings.

Here’s a discussion of some other things we are doing to help the hummer stay warm and grow fatter:


Why don’t you catch it and send it south to warmer climates?
Rufous Hummingbirds have overwintered at feeders as far north as southern Illinois and Kentucky. Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds also have survived many weeks of winter weather at feeders in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan, and then disappeared mid winter. One such Rufous in Michigan was banded before it left, then it showed up at the same feeders the following winter (after going to who-knows-where in between).

So, we’re trying to fatten up the Oak Park hummingbird so it can successfully move on to somewhere else–like maybe someone else’s feeders in Kentucky or points south. Here’s how we are trying to do it:

If you’re thinking that we should rescue the hummer now while it’s still healthy, I don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s a wild creature, protected by federal and state laws. Some folks have permits to rescue sick and injured wildlife, but this bird had some fat on it during its early morning banding, and on Dec. 10 it was flying strong at 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Rufous Hummingbirds look small and cute and defenseless. But, having watched our hummer for more than a month, I can also say its hardy, cautious, smart, resourceful, and every pugnaceous (as when it chases House Sparrows from its roosting spots). I think it deserves to stay wild.

However, if the hummer does show signs of illness or injury, we have a contingency plan to rescue it, developed with Flint Creek Widlife’s help. There’s a box of rescue supplies on our kitchen table. Rescuing it may make some folks feel better, but it will make me feel really sad–I want it to stay wild and free.


Where can I learn more about this bird?
The most substantive discussions of the Oak Park hummer are on Illinois Birders’ Forum. At this point, most of the discussion is taking place on this thread:  There are direct links to the most recent entries at the top and bottom of each page. (Last we looked we were up to page 14.)

The Illinois Birders’ Forum discussion started less than an hour after we first saw the bird on this thread:  Last we looked the most recent entry on this thread was dated November 27, 2011 (Page 3).

There are also e-mail updates and discussion of this bird on the Illinois birders’ e-mail list, which is a Yahoo group, called IBET (for “Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts). You can read recent postings to this list on BirdMail:


Another source for updates: Check our @NearbyNature Twitter feed:


Oak Park’s hummingbird in the news — BEFORE the DNA results:
Here are some of the major online news stories about our hummer in the order in which they were posted.

Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal scooped the world with a story posted less than 2 days after the hummer was first spotted:

Katie Drews of was next, about a week later:

Katie’s story was immediately picked up by the Chicago Sun-Times:

The Sun-Times story was picked up by press outlets worldwide, probably because of this UPI story:

Chicago’s NBC 5 was one of the first TV stations to broadcast the story:  We’ve heard that many other stations have had stories since then, as far from here as Texas and Florida.

Soon the Chicago Tribune had also posted a story and video:,0,6399494.story  Plus a short article by the photographer:

We were also happy to see the story on the Project FeederWatch blog, since Eric (also known as “Dad”) first saw the hummer while counting House Finches for FeederWatch:

There have been many more stories posted since then. We don’t have enough time to link to all of them. (Try googling “Oak Park hummingbird” if you want to find more stories.)


Oak Park’s hummingbird in the news — AFTER the DNA results:  

Chicago Tribune:

From the American Birding Association blog:

As of the last week of 2011, the hummer was still in the news. Chicago Wildlife News had an article about our backyard hummingbird:  The same piece also appeared in the Chicago Sun Times:

The Chicago Tribune’s Local online edition published an article the day before our hummer left:


Here are a few links about Midwestern hummingbirds in winter:

Hummer/Bird Study Group: Winter Hummingbird Banding:

Ohio Tri-state Hummingbird Study: Winter Banding of Western Hummers in the Eastern U.S.:

That’s it for now. We’ll add more to this page over the next few days.



6 Responses to “Oak Park’s Rufous Hummingbird”

  1. joan Says:

    i live in central wisconsin and i have an identical hummingbird here.she looks to me to be a female ruby throat. she showed up about three weeks ago in a snowstorm so i filled my feeder but she’s not showing any sign that she’s going to leave. i don’t know what’s going to happen to her because we can’t keep the feeder going all winter it will freeze.

  2. Sharon Parmet Says:

    I am planning on visiting tomorrow am (Jan 3) between 7:30 and 8 am- Sharon Parmet

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