The Migration Process
Male Ruby-throats will set out first. Their goal is to fly from Mexico's Yucatan Penninsula, speed across the Gulf of Mexico and reach land on somewhere on the U.S. Gulf Coast. It's a grueling journey over the open water with no place to stop and rest!
The males are followed on this trek by the females, who will depart approximately 10 days later. The entire hummingbird migration process spans a period of about 3 months.
Why does it take so long?
Consider this example: Airplanes follow schedules to prevent accidents. If they all took off and arrived at the same time, crashes would be far more frequent. Hummingbirds have a similar safety system! If all the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds left Mexico on the same day and they ran into a storm in the Gulf of Mixico, the severe weather could wipe out the entire species! By staggering their departure times, only a few Ruby-throats are put at risk at one time.
The result is a lengthy north-bound migration season that begins in February. The remainder of birds will arrive later, sometimes by a span of several weeks. Northbound hummingbird migration is typically concluded by mid-May.
For the next few months, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird population dedicates its time to finding mates, nest-building and raising its young.
Once the flowers cease blooming and insects are scarce, sometimes as early as mid-July, hummers start preparing for migration again. That means they look to bulk up again -- feasting on insects and any available nectar, including the nectar provided at hummingbird feeders. Once properly refueled, the majority of them will leave late August and early September for their southward hummingbird migration.
To begin their journey south, the hummers will follow the same hummingbird migration process as when they travel northbound, with one exception: Now juvenile hummingbirds must also make the journey. These young birds are especially vulnerable during this time, and spend all their time before the trip feeding and strengthening themselves.
Contrary to their instincts, not all Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will actually migrate to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Instead, a few will winter along the U.S. Gulf Coast and Florida. These birds take a big chance -- a surprise cold snap could be deadly. Why don't they migrate? Scientists believe these birds are often juveniles from late nests or older Ruby-throats too weak for the Gulf-crossing journey. Even more surprising is the small population of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who reside in North Carolina's Outer Banks area all year long!
Naturally, scientists do not know all the specifics of Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration, or all the specifics of other hummingbirds' migration habits, but we do enjoy and appreciate the laborious journey these tiny travelers make each year to and from our backyards!
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