Hummingbirds have always been considered tropical birds, and the majority of them still are today. Scientists believe the first hummingbird species appeared in North America during the Ice Age/Pleistocene Epoch. During that period, their tropic habitat had become overcrowded, creating a shortage of food preserves and shelter resources. These little explorers began looking for a new place to live. When the layers of ice receded from North America, hummingbirds journeyed northward and discovered this new territory, taking advantage of an abundant supply of insects and flowering plant life. Because these types of food supplies do not survive in cold temperatures, hummingbirds needed to return to Central America during the winter months to survive. Thus began the famous hummingbird's journey – now known as hummingbird migration.
The majority of Ruby-throated hummingbirds spend their winters between southern Mexico and northern Panama. Because they are solitary birds, individual hummingbirds migrate anywhere within this range.
These solitary creatures do not travel in flocks during hummingbird migration; when it is time to migrate north they will leave on their journey at various times. By February, most have reached the Yucatan. Here they will feast on insects to prepare for their non-stop flight of up to 500 miles – which takes approximately 18-22 hours.
Fast Weight Loss
Ruby-throated hummingbirds need to more than double their weight, from 3 grams to over 6 grams, before taking flight. 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 reaffirms their need to fuel up and add extra weight to their tiny frames for their long hummingbird migration northward.
The Migration Process
Male Ruby-throated hummingbirds will set out first for the coast. Females will depart approximately 10 days later. The entire hummingbird migration process spans a period of about 3 months.
Multiple airplanes depart from a hub at various times to prevent accidents. Hummingbirds follow this same practice during hummingbird migration. If the hummers were to leave all at once and a weather catastrophe occurred, the entire species could be destroyed. This explains why only a few Ruby-throats will be spotted in the beginning of the hummingbird migration. The remainder of birds will arrive later, sometimes in a span of several weeks. Northbound hummingbird migration is typically concluded by mid-May. Take a look at our very own Interactive Hummingbird Migration Map!
Once the flowers cease blooming and insects become scarce, sometimes as early as mid-July, hummers start preparing for their return migration. The majority of them will leave between late August and early September for their southward hummingbird migration. Interestingly, on their southbound migration, hummingbirds will follow the same migration route they took when they traveled northward.
Naturally, we do not know all the specifics of hummingbird migration, but we do enjoy and appreciate the laborious journey these tiny travelers make each year to our backyards, providing us with opportunities for great hummingbird watching!
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