How Many Birds?

By Scott Surner

August 30, 2020

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Male PHOTO Scott Surner

How many birds do you really have at your feeder? The short answer is it’s very hard to know. Most of us (including me) will keep a species list of what shows up at the feeding station and try and ascertain how many of each species there is. The easiest and only way to do this is keep a tally during the day. For example, at 8:00AM you may have 2 Downy Woodpeckers, 4 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 Tufted Titmouse, 6 American Goldfinch, 6 Blue Jays, etc. You check in a couple hours later and now you have 4 Downy Woodpeckers, 6 Black-capped Chickadees, 3 Tufted Titmouse, 4 American Goldfinches, and 3 Blue Jays and so on throughout the day. At the end of your observation period you take the highest number of each species for the day and you have your high count for that species. This is pretty much the only way to do it, and it’s fun to look back over the years and see what some of the high counts have been and on what date. So, when keeping your list, remember to not only keep a species list and numbers, but remember to enter the date!

A few years back I had 36 Blue Jays descend upon the bird feeders early one morning in May, that’s right 36 Blue Jays all at once! They were on the feeders, on the ground, everywhere, but I was able to count them and that certainly was my high count for the day! However, I had Blue Jays in much more modest numbers throughout that day, and wondered if these were just the remnants of the massive flock that hit my feeders in the early morning or could they have been a completely new group of Blue Jays that were just arriving into the area from migrating? I’ll never know.

PHOTO Scott Surner

Every once in a while we get a glimpse into this unknown world of species counts through Bird Banding. Years ago, in the 1960’s a friend of mine was consistently seeing 20 Pine Siskins at his feeder throughout the day. So, he contacted his friend who was a certified Bird Bander to come over and do a little experiment. They wanted to see how many Pine Siskins were coming into his feeding station. They set up mist nets to capture the 20 Pine Siskins, banded them and then of course set them free. After a while there were another 20 Pine Siskins back at the feeder, captured and banded them, all new ones! They did this throughout the day and the results showed they banded over 100 Pine Siskins, but only had 20 at time at the feeder throughout the day! 

Currently, friends of mine living in Whately, Massachusetts love seeing and identifying Hummingbirds. They travel all over the Americas looking for as many different species of Hummingbirds they can see and have created a hummingbird haven at their home. Their yard is landscaped to attract hummingbirds (and Butterflies) and they 42 Hummingbird feeders deployed throughout their yard. YES…42 Hummingbird feeders!  At the peak of the season, which is now, they go through about 12 pounds of Sugar each week making  the hummingbird nectar! And yes, it takes a while to fill 42 hummingbird feeders. Now, if you’re going through 12 pounds of sugar each week you can reasonably surmise that you’ve got a lot of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting your yard. But like the Pine Siskin story they would only see 10 to 15 Hummingbirds at a time.  

PHOTO Scott Surner

Over the last several years they have had a certified Hummingbird Bander come in for a morning in early August and band the Hummingbirds in their yard. To capture a Hummingbird, they use a cage and place a hummingbird feeder inside, once the hummingbird goes in for a drink, the trap door is released and captures the bird. I’ve seen this over the years and trust me, it’s a lot easier said than done, as these little guys are quite fast. When a Hummingbird is banded, its weighed, sexed, measured and have a tiny, tiny, leg band placed on the bird.  All this information is entered into a date base and in the event the bird is re-captured the researcher can look it up and find where and when this bird was banded. This year’s results were amazing. In a half day operation, they captured 94 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds! 87 were new captures with 7 re-captures from previous years. One of the seven previously banded Ruby-throats was a female that they banded at this location in Whately 8 years earlier! 

In think I mentioned in an earlier blog post that here in Massachusetts we have only one Hummingbird to contend with, and that is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only species to have ever been reported in the state. Besides the Ruby-throated Hummingbird there are records for Black-chinned Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Allen’s Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird and Broad-billed Hummingbird. I can think of at least three sightings of Rufous Hummingbird, all from North Amherst and a single record for Allen’s Hummingbird from South Amherst. Of course, there are other records for both Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds outside of Amherst and the lone Calliope Hummingbird record comes from Deerfield. 

PHOTO Scott Surner

So August is the month when Hummingbird activity is at its peak and by mid-September it starts to drop off noticeably as most (but not all) make their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.  However, if you do have a hummingbird holding on or recently showing up in October, then it could get more interesting. This is the time of year, historically that the western vagrants tend to show up in Massachusetts. Chances are it’s just a late lingering Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but you never know. If you have a late Hummingbird show up and would like someone to take a look at it, call the Hitchcock Center and they’ll get in contact with me. 

Until next time……Keep those binoculars handy.

Making Hummingbird Food – If you’ve never made hummingbird food before it’s quite easy. 4 parts water to 1-part sugar. Use hot tap water, add sugar and mix well. Let cool and pour into Hummingbird feeder. It’s best to use just plain white sugar and you don’t need to put any red dye into the Hummingbird food you just made, the red color of the hummingbird feeder itself will attract the hummingbirds. Also, Keep the hummingbird feeders clean, rise them out with water and replace the hummingbird nectar you made every three or four days. By cleaning out the hummingbird feeder every three or four days you will prevent mold or fungus from developing. 

Scott Surner has been studying and observing birds for over 45 years throughout the Connecticut River Valley, (Massachusetts) New England and North America. His travels have taken him to New Jersey, Delaware, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska, Canada (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Churchill) Costa Rica, Belize and Veracruz, Mexico. He has been teaching bird ID classes at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, MA since 1980. He is a founding member and past president of the Hampshire Bird Club, (Established in 1984) and a past member of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee. 

Sunday Birding with Scott is published irregularly on Sundays.

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