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Hummingbird Migration Facts

Each year, sometimes as early as January, hummingbirds (specifically the Ruby-throated Hummingbird) embark on a journey that requires immense preparation and a shocking amount of energy.


A hummingbird's trip to northern breeding grounds can be short, too! Some of these fabulous bird species begin their southern migration as early as mid-July.


This hummingbird migration journey is part of the hummingbird life cycle for the species that visit the U.S. and Canada, and their migration is necessary for their survival.

Ready to learn more about hummingbird migration and how you can help them have a successful trip? Then read on!


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Hummingbird Migration...The Great Hummingbird Voyage



Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on orange flower

Why Hummingbirds Migrate


It is believed that the first hummingbird species developed during the ice age. They have always been considered tropical birds, and the majority of them are still labeled that way. However, when the layers of ice withdrew from North America, several hummingbird species saw an opportunity to discover a new land and they spread out through the continent.


When their tropical habitat became overcrowded with other hummingbirds, food and shelter supplies wore slim. That's when these little explorers decided to journey north where they could take advantage of the abundance of insects and flowering plant life. Because these tresources do not survive in cold temperatures, the hummingbirds traveled back to Central America during winter months in order to thrive. Thus began the the yearly cycle of hummingbird migration for millions of birds.





hummingbird migration, hummingbird map

Winter Vacation for Hummingbirds


The mass of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend their winters between southern Mexico and northern Panama. Because these hummers are solitary birds, individual birds migrate anywhere within this range. They usually begin to arrive in the U.S. by February and are on their way south in September. 


Other hummingbirds have slightly different migration paterns:  

  • Allen's Hummingbirds set out for the California coast and southern Oregon in February. By July and August, they're on their way South again.
  • Black-Chinned Hummingbird migration begins in March when the earliest birds reach the southern U.S. These birds reach the northwestern U.S. and Canada in May. They head south from Canada in September and find their Mexican homes by November.
  • The Broad-Tailed Hummingbird shows up in Arizona in late March. Others begin appearing in the northwestern U.S. by May. Migration south occurs in late September or October.
  • Calliope Hummingbirds begin migration in March and arrive in British Columbia by late May. By August, they're on their way back to Mexico.
  • Costa's Hummingbirds stay in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona during the summer. Their stay is a short one, too -- they arrive in early February and leave by May.
  • The Rufous Hummingbird has the longest migration of hummingbirds. They start in February and fly up the U.S. west coast to British Columbia and Alaska, which they can reach by the end of April. When temperatures start to go down in August, they travel south to their winter locales, which can include warmer areas of southern California, the northern Gulf coast and much of Mexico. 




The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a solitary creature and doesn't live in flocks as many other bird species do.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are Solo Fliers


These solitary creatures do not travel in flocks during their migrations north and south. Each bird decides on its own when it is time to migrate. Scientists believe the decision is based on several factors including changes in the amount of daylight, environmental factors and chemical changes inside the bird itself.


With all those factors at play, one Ruby-throated Hummingbird will begin its migration at a totally different time than another Ruby-throat.


For their northern migrations, most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach Mexico's Yucatan area by February. It's here where they begin a massive feast! They gourge themselves on insects as they prepare for the next stage of their northward migration --  a non-stop flight of up to 500 miles that takes the little bird approximately 18 to 22 hours.





Fast Weight Loss


Before they leave for this harrowing stage of their migration, a Ruby-throat will have just about doubled its weight from 3 grams to over 6 grams. The most amazing part of this fact is that once they reach the U.S., the hummer may only weigh around 2.5 grams! This establishes their need to fuel up and add the extra weight to their tiny frames for their long hummingbird migration northward.


They experience the same weight loss on their southern migration in September.





Juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird


Hummingbird migration, hummingbird map

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!


Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration facts 




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