The Fascinating Hummingbird Migration Journey

If, in proportion to his size, a man traveled as far as a Rufous Hummingbird does between its summer and winter homes, he would be able to go half the distance from the earth to the sun, forty-five million miles in two months.

If, again in proportion to his size, a man could travel as fast as a Hummingbird, he would be able to circle the earth, twenty-five thousand miles, in three minutes.

Perhaps this may give you an idea of what migration means to a Hummingbird!. Banding has provided us with information on hummingbird migration ("Banding" means trapping a bird and wrapping a tiny numbered strip of aluminum around one leg).

Most hummingbirds that spend their summers in North America return to more temperate climates for the winter. As sunlight and the food source of nectars and insects diminish and the temperatures begin to drop, the hummers will start their journey south to Central America. Most North American hummingbirds can tolerate cold temperatures for a few days as long as there is sufficient food available. Many species that migrate to the U.S. travel impressive distances.

Ruby-throat Hummingbirds, for example, may travel as many as 2,000 miles between Canada and Panama. The trip includes a non-stop, 500-mile flight over the Gulf of Mexico (see map).

Hummingbirds by nature are tropical creatures. They have been programmed to move north in the spring to exploit the renewed food sources and nesting sites, while escaping the intense competition for the same in the tropics. It is believed that this process began with the end of the last ice age.

Until recently, hummingbirds were among the least studied of all wild birds. The interest in these little jewels has been increasing in both the scientific community and with bird watching enthusiasts. Much is being learned from an increasing number of hummers being banded. This is currently the only way to identify individual hummingbirds. Hummer species are studied by gathering data on large numbers of individuals. More and more is being learned about the hummingbird migration cycle using this new information.

Since there are as many hummingbird migration strategies as there are species of hummingbirds, I will focus on just one. Living in the Northeastern US, my interest lies mainly with the Ruby-throated hummingbird.

ruby throat in flight

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are solitary creatures that spend their winters in southern Mexico and Panama. They do not migrate in flocks. Ruby-throats will begin moving north as early as January. They will eat large amounts of insects, nearly doubling their weight, to grow from about 3 grams to 6 grams.

The weight gain is necessary to give them the energy needed for the journey across the Gulf of Mexico. The nearly 500 mile, non-stop flight will take 18 and 22 hours, depending on weather conditions. The first males typically leave a few weeks before the first females. The species migration is spread over a few months. This reduces the possibility of species destruction from any single weather event.

Once in the US, the hummingbird migration will continue at a rate of about 20 miles per day following the early blooms of the flowers that the Ruby-throats prefer as a food source. The northern migration is usually completed by the end of May. Banding studies have shown that each bird will return to the area where it hatched, even returning to the same nesting sites year after year.

Ruby-throats do not do well in cold temperatures. So to avoid the cold, lack of blooming flowers and reduced insect populations they move south. The southern pattern resembles that of the northern migration. Some hummingbirds will begin their trip south as early as July, while others will wait until August or even September to leave.

It is likely that the birds you see at your bird feeders in August are on their migration from farther north and not the same birds that you saw at your feeders earlier in the summer.

It was once thought that leaving your hummingbird feeders up would delay the hummingbird's migration. Studies have shown that reduced sunlight is what triggers the ruby-throats to start their migration and not reduced food sources. If you remove your feeders early, the hummers will simply feed elsewhere, reducing the chance that they will return to your feeders in the spring.

Understanding hummingbird migration will help you decide when to put out your hummingbird feeders.

Click here for even more facts about the hummingbird.

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