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Hummingbird Migration Facts
Each year, hummingbirds embark on two migrations – one north and one south. These migratory journeys, which can span hundreds or thousands of miles, require immense preparation and a shocking amount of energy from these small birds - the smallest in the world. Their spring migration north, from South America and Mexico up to Canada, is a solitary journey with the goal of getting to their breeding grounds early enough to claim the best feeding territories. With that sort of pressure, this hummingbird migration can begin as early as February in Mexico and finish in mid-May in Canada and Alaska.
The fall southern hummingbird migration follows a similar timeframe. Hummingbirds can set out as early as late July and the last stragglers will cross the southern U.S. border by late October. It’s this amazing cycle of hummingbird migration that can also bring a sudden swarm of activity to your hummingbird feeders. If you have a well-maintained hummingbird feeder, expect plenty of new visitors as they try to boost their energy before the next stage of their journey.
Why Do Hummingbirds Migrate?
It is believed that the first hummingbirds developed in South America after arriving from Asia 22-million years ago. Once they spread through South America, a few species began to move to Central America, the Caribbean and eventually mainland North America. By migrating to areas with more abundant food, these little explorers had less competition for food and territory. Of course, the seasonal cooling also drove these species south every fall. This cycle of advancing and retreating with the seasons is the basic foundation of their migratory pattern.
There are currently 338 recognized hummingbird species, but only 12-15 will regularly migrate into the United States, and even fewer continue all the way north to Canada.
Hummingbirds that Migrate into the US and Canada:
The beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird, a hummingbird common to the West Coast, is a special case since it doesn’t really migrate. While some individual Anna's may adopt a temporary territory with a more favorable climate, others will stay in the same area year round. As such, Anna’s Hummingbirds are considered resident birds of the U.S. and Canada.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration
The majority of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend their winters between southern Mexico and northern Panama. Because Ruby-throats are solitary birds, individuals will migrate to any location within this range.
Their winters aren’t all sun and fun though. In fact, they spend most of their time preparing for the trip back north.
- November: Upon completing their fall migration, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will begin to molt.
- December: Molting takes its toll, so hummingbirds spend time gorging themselves on the nectar and insects they can find. (Of course some birds will stay in the U.S. through the winter, weathering chilly temperatures along the Gulf Coast. Other Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will winter even farther north -- remaining on North Carolina’s Outer Banks all year long!)
- January: Possibly the slowest time for Ruby-throats is January, but only relatively speaking. As their last feathers come in, these birds are focused on feeding and do so by visiting dozens of plants each day. Remember, a hummingbird needs a lot of nectar to keep those wings flapping!
- February: By this time, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s instincts are kicking in. Those instincts tell the bird to fatten up and fly north. They know that breeding season is coming soon. The earliest departures north from Mexico and Central America begin in late February, while the majority occurs in March.
How do Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds Migrate?
Ruby-throats do not travel in flocks during hummingbird migration. Instead, each bird follows its own instincts on appropriate departure times and routes.
Scientists believe that each hummingbird begins its migration in response to environmental triggers. One trigger is the changing level and angle of sunlight. Another trigger is believed to be a drop in available natural food. As these signals continue to activate, the hummingbird makes its preparations and eventually departs.
On their northward trip, most have reached Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by February. In this lush jungle, they begin to feast on insects as they prepare for one of the toughest migrations for any bird. Each year, thousands of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fly over the open water of the Gulf of Mexico rather than follow the longer shoreline route.
These brave little birds will fly non-stop up to 500 miles to reach U.S. shores. It takes approximately 18-22 hours to complete this amazing solitary flight.
Some hummingbirds aren’t strong enough, though, as many oil riggers and fishing boat crews can attest. Every year, exhausted Ruby-throated Hummingbirds take temporary refuge on offshore oil rigs and boats floating in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. These birds rest a while before bravely launching back into their flight across the open water.
When they return south, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will follow the same daring migration route in reverse. They’ll charge up their energy reserves in the southern U.S. and then zip across the gulf toward their winter home. That’s two big, non-stop trips each year for Ruby-throats – you have to admire their tenacity!
Dietary Needs of the Migrating Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
In preparation for their migration, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds double their weight from 3 grams to over 6 grams prior to departing.
They don’t stay pudgy for long, though. In northward migrations, it’s not uncommon for a hummingbird to weigh around 2.5 grams when it reaches U.S. shores!
Their need to fuel up and add the extra weight to their tiny frames is vital. With a heart rate of approximately 1,200 beats per minute while flying and wings that flutter at least 53 times a second, they need some serious energy just to get through the day, much less a non-stop trip of hundreds of miles.
In general, hummingbirds consume up to 50% of their body weight in nectar each day. During their twice-a-year migration, they increase their nectar intake considerably since they have no idea where their next meal will come from.
Rufous Hummingbird Migration
The other superstar in the game of hummingbird migration is the Rufous Hummingbird. In the winter, Rufous Hummingbirds reside in southern Mexico. When the urge to migrate hits them, they speed up the West Coast of North America until they reach their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. That’s a journey of nearly 4,000 miles -- a huge undertaking for such a tiny bird!
The trip south usually begins in July, and most Rufous Hummingbirds will follow a slightly different route. Instead of gliding along the coast, they usually follow the Rocky Mountains back to Mexico.
Backyard Birders & Hummingbird Migration
For fans of hummingbirds, it can be hard to determine the best times to remove feeders in the fall and when to put them back into service in the spring.
- Should you take down feeders in the fall? Yes, you can definitely take them down but only after they stop being used. Keeping them up isn’t going to trick your hummingbirds into staying longer. Their biological drive is pushing them south, and a full feeder isn’t going to change that impulse. Except in the extreme southern U.S., you can expect to take your feeders down around Halloween. Those folks in the extreme south may actually see visitors through the entire winter, so keep these feeders filled!
- When should you put them back up in spring? This is bit hard to say matter-of-factly. Hummingbirds migrate north according to their own schedule, weather and food availability. Instead of relying on a hard-and-fast date, your best bet is to watch our Migration Map. When the hummers start making appearances south of your location, put out your first feeder and add more as you see more visitors.
- Don’t forget Anna's! If you’re a West Coaster who hosts Anna’s Hummingbirds, don’t take your feeders down at all. These birds stay in North America all year long.
Reporting Your Hummingbird Sightings
To help add to the Hummingbird Migration Map, try watching your feeders for a few minutes each day in the spring and fall. Hummingbirds are usually most active in the mornings or evenings, but the drive to fatten up for migration may increase activity through the entire day.
As you observe your hummingbirds, take note of their appearance, which can be an indicator of where hummingbirds, as a species, are in the migration process.
- Males – With their bright colors, males are the easiest hummingbirds to sort out from a group of other hummingbirds. They also tend to depart on their migration early. That means a swarm of male hummingbirds at your feeders is a good indication of the first wave of migration.
- Females and Juveniles – The second wave of hummingbird migration occurs when the adult females and juvenile hummingbirds start their journey. Though they travel around the same time, they don’t necessarily travel together. The youngsters follow their newfound instincts to move south. When you see this group at your feeders, it will be hard to tell the Moms from the kids. Generally, they all look alike! Hummingbirds nesting in the southern U.S. will sometimes rear a second brood of chicks before migrating south. This second brood can delay individual migration a bit longer.
- Feeder check – Aside from watching the birds themselves, also keep an eye out on your feeders. As the spring migration moves north, you’ll notice a quicker depletion of nectar from your feeders. This may eventually trail off as hummingbirds focus on natural food and breeding. As the fall migration moves south, you’ll have a burst of activity and then your feeders will sit unused for days. Noting all this activity is an important sign of migration!
- Citizen Science – Now that you’re aware of what’s going on with your feathered friends, you need to submit your sightings to the Migration Map. Do so by clicking the red “Submit Your Sighting” button and entering your information. If you have a photo, you can include that, too.
Naturally, we do not know all the specifics of hummingbird migration, but the more we understand, the better we can appreciate these fascinating creatures. It’s their natural migration instincts that bring these tiny travelers to our backyards!