The Rubies Return

The Rubies Return

i Mar 31, 2024 No Comments by

By Brittany Richards

The pear and cherry trees have bloomed and leafed out. The eastern redbuds are glorious fuschia. Your yard is abuzz with chubby carpenter bees and flying insects of all sorts. But how do you know it’s really spring? The first hummingbird sighting of the season, of course! Our bird of the year, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, will be returning soon (if you aren’t already one of the lucky few to have welcomed an early visitor). While there is still much unknown about the exact mechanics of their spring migration, what scientists have been able to learn offers a fascinating glimpse at the remarkable feat these tiny birds undertake on their way to our backyards. 

Ruby-throat in flight. Photos by Mike Dunn

We know from our last blog post that our hummingbirds are preparing for their spring journey by fattening up in their wintering grounds and refreshing their beautiful plumage, and that male birds will leave first to establish their territory. Just as they did last fall, most birds will take an overwater route and fly 500 miles nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico before reaching the Gulf coast states to refuel while making their way to the North Carolina piedmont and beyond (and smaller numbers will hug the coast to migrate over land). It is believed that their overwater flight largely takes place at night, while their migration over land happens during the day and near ground level to take advantage of food sources for frequent feeding. 

But why do they leave their tropical paradise at all? Ruby-throated Hummingbirds evolved to take advantage of the seasonally available flowers in their two habitats, and that adaptation is now a hardwired instinct. Their northern summer breeding territory is six times larger than their winter territory (25 million square miles versus four million square miles), so when nectar-producing flowers bloom in abundance across eastern North America, hummingbirds migrate to feast on the bounty. They likely know when it is time to migrate because they are sensitive to changes in the photoperiod, or the amount of daylight hours in a 24-hour timeframe. So as spring days grow longer, hormonal signals trigger the instinct to head back north. 

Ruby-throat at Jewelweed flower. Photo by Mike Dunn.

When the Ruby-throats reach the southeastern United States, they will fan out across the summer range, as far west as Texas and as far north as Canada. Studies of banded Ruby-throats shows that birds will take astoundingly consistent routes: flying the same route in spring and fall and the same route each year, and even stopping over at the same places along the way, and in some cases stopping on the same day, until they return to their own birthplace where they hatched. So the birds you see return to your feeder are indeed likely the same birds you saw last year. With an average lifespan of three to four years, you can enjoy seeing the same birds for several summers. Scientists do not know precisely how they accomplish this amazing precision, especially considering Ruby-throats migrate alone without a parent or flock to guide them. Along with instinct, they may use some combination of sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, using the sun as a compass, and noticing landmarks to remember their favorite layovers and find their final destination. 

As we all anxiously await a familiar fluttering at our feeders, the National Audubon Society has a handy list of hummingbird feeder FAQ to help us prepare a tasty meal for our hungry migrants. Some general tips to keep in mind:

  • Not only is red-dyed nectar unnecessary, it’s actually harmful. A simple homemade recipe is one part white sugar to four parts water (and never honey, molasses, brown sugar, or artificial sweeteners). 
  • The hotter the weather, the more frequently the feeder needs to be cleaned. Placing your feeder in the shade is a good way to keep it from spoiling as quickly. Early in the season you also won’t need as much, so you can use less (and waste less!) at the start. 
  • In addition to your nectar feeder, native plants are a great way to attract and feed hummingbirds (and other pollinators). The National Audubon Society also provides tips for creating a hummingbird-friendly yard and a database of native plants based on your zipcode. 

Ruby-throat at feeder. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Hopefully you’ll mark the true start of your spring season with a Ruby-throated visitor or two very soon. After their long journey north, your birds will be very grateful for your nourishing nectar! 

Embracing the Majesty of the Northern Cardinal

i Mar 26, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by Rick LaRose

This is the first of a series of blog posts to spotlight some of our native songbirds matched to the colors of the rainbow Pride flag, starting with the color red. Find more context here.

The Northern Cardinal, with its vibrant plumage and enchanting melodies, is a beloved symbol of beauty and vitality in North Carolina. Let’s delve into the captivating features and behaviors of this iconic bird, which graces our landscapes with its presence year-round.

Size and shape

– Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds, measuring around 8 to 9 inches in length.

– They have a distinctive crest on their heads and a sturdy, cone-shaped bill, perfect for cracking seeds.

Color and pattern

– Adult males are adorned with brilliant red plumage on their bodies, crest, and face, contrasting with their black masks and throat patches.

Northern Cardinal, male. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

Northern Cardinal, male. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

– Females are predominantly brown with red tinges on their wings, tails, and crests, while juveniles have a similar appearance to females but with a duller coloration.

Northern Cardinal, female. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

Northern Cardinal, female. Photo by Keith Kennedy.

Calls and songs

– The Northern Cardinal’s song is a series of clear, whistled phrases, often described as “birdie, birdie, birdie” or “cheer, cheer, cheer” which to me can sound like a rapid-fire ray gun.

– They also produce a variety of other vocalizations, including sharp chips and metallic chinks, used for communication with mates and warning of predators.


– Cardinals are adaptable birds, found in a variety of habitats including woodlands, shrubby areas, parks, and suburban gardens.

– They prefer areas with dense vegetation for nesting and perching, as well as access to open spaces for foraging.


– Northern Cardinals are primarily seed-eaters, feeding on a variety of seeds, grains, and fruits, as well as insects and spiders.

– They are often seen foraging on the ground or in low vegetation, using their strong bills to crack open seeds and extract the nutritious contents.

Migration and seasons in NC

– Cardinals are non-migratory birds, maintaining their territories year-round, and often remain paired with the same mate for several breeding seasons.

– They are most active during the breeding season in spring and early summer, when males sing to establish and defend their territories.

– Cardinals may also be more visible during the fall and winter months when food sources are scarce, often visiting backyard feeders for supplementary food.


– In many cultures, the Northern Cardinal is associated with positive attributes such as vitality, renewal, and strength.

– Its vibrant red plumage is often seen as a symbol of energy, passion, and courage, while its melodious songs are thought to bring joy and happiness.

– Some believe that spotting a Northern Cardinal can bring good luck or serve as a reminder of loved ones who have passed away. For one of my cherished friends, they’re a symbol that her departed mother is near.

The Northern Cardinal is a revered emblem of North Carolina’s natural beauty, captivating us with its striking appearance and captivating melodies, providing color and song to our landscapes throughout the year. No wonder the NC General Assembly of 1943 named this unmistakable red, crested songbird as the official State Bird of North Carolina.

A common site in North Carolina, providing color and song to our landscapes throughout the year, the Cardinal is often credited as “the red bird” that first piques the interest of backyard birders. I find them to be the first birds at my feeders in the morning, and the last to visit at dusk. Have you seen the same?

So, let’s celebrate the Northern Cardinal for vibrantly representing the color red of our rainbow flag and captivating us with their beauty and symbolism.


National Audubon Society (Guide to North American Birds | Audubon)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology (All About Birds)

Birdzilla (Bird Meaning & Symbolism)

And my own personal experiences


Highlighting a Colorful Array of Birds and the Catalyst for It: Inclusivity

i Mar 20, 2024 No Comments by

Hi all, Wake Audubon board member and Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) co-chair Rick LaRose (he/him) here.

Starting this month, you’ll begin to see posts to our blog about birds other than our bird of the year, which as you know by now is the glorious ruby-throated hummingbird. Here’s just a quick note to invite you to read those posts, and provide an explanation as to what they’re all about.

Last fall Wake Audubon partnered with local nonprofit Field Inclusive, Inc. to co-create and pilot a Beginning Birders Program that’s tailored for historically excluded and underrepresented groups, communities and organizations to build skill and confidence in their enjoyment of the outdoors. The LGBT Center of Raleigh, Outdoor Afro, City of Raleigh Parks and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission are partners with us too. Segments of our program speak to field and social safety concerns by those marginalized by others. I’m proud to say that our pilot workshops with members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities were well received.

For those of you new to Field Inclusive, Inc. nonprofit, it was spearheaded by two amazingly impressive women at NC State University, Lauren Pharr and Murry Burgess. Learn more about them and Field Inclusive on their website.

Wake Audubon proudly sponsors Field Inclusive research and climate change grants, and champions their mission to amplify and support marginalized and historically excluded field biologists. Field Inclusive envisions a world in which the outdoors feels safe and welcoming regardless of personal identity. And so do we.

Wake Audubon pledges to advance our mission with EDIB at the center, and provide activities where all can safely access and celebrate nature as their authentic selves. Read more in our statement on EDIB.

This year Wake Audubon and Field Inclusive will excitedly continue to co-host programming for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ participants, as we also gear up to create offerings for Persons with Disabilities. We celebrate these efforts towards an inclusive outdoors.

Why be inclusive?

From a human perspective, every one of us is unique. What opportunity that poses for all of us. I’m constantly awestruck by all I learn, and the perspective and inspiration I gain from opening my heart and mind to receive the lived experiences of others. To be quick to pass judgement denies oneself of such riches.

From a conservation perspective, it takes the world to save the planet. Just as birds differ in color, size, behavior, geographical preference, and countless other ways, so is there equally remarkable diversity of the human species.

Protecting and conserving nature and the environment transcends political, cultural, and social boundaries. Respect, inclusion, and opportunity for people of all backgrounds, lifestyles, and perspectives will attract the best ideas and harness the greatest passion to shape a healthier, more vibrant future for all species who share our planet.

Now, back to those bird posts. As a way to promote a birding mindset, the executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, Kori Hennessey, and I thought it would be fun to spotlight a few species of birds, and to correlate each to a color of the rainbow Pride flag. So, starting next week with the color red, I’ll familiarize you with a bird a month. This may provide new knowledge to the novice birders among you, with perhaps a nugget or two new for you seasoned birders too.

Thank you for supporting Wake Audubon in our mission to advocate nature and environmental conservation, and to lead education, conservation and advocacy efforts to grow our region responsibly and with concern for birds, wildlife and the places all of us live together.