Few birds are as beloved as hummingbirds, and the return of spring hummingbirds is one of the most anticipated sightings for backyard birders, just as having these flying jewels leave in the fall is a sure sign that summer is over. Understanding how hummingbirds migrate and their seasonal travel patterns can help birders prepare for hummingbirds’ spring arrival and anticipate their fall departure as well, ensuring that every day in between is one to appreciate and enjoy hummingbirds.
About Hummingbird Migration
Like many birds, most hummingbirds in North America move between summer breeding grounds and winter ranges. Depending on the bird, there may be hundreds or thousands of miles between where they raise a family and where they spend the winter. The migration in between is filled with hazards. Migrating hummingbirds are at risk from predators, storms, habitat loss, lack of food, and even collisions with buildings. Despite such obstacles, however, these tiny birds often succeed in their travels. They return to the same areas year after year, to the delight of the birders who eagerly await their arrivals.
How Hummingbirds Migrate
Hummingbirds have many tactics that help them survive their perilous migration journeys. Birders who can recognize hummingbird migration behavior can be better prepared to assist these tiny birds along the way.
- Hummingbirds migrate alone rather than gathering in flocks like ducks, geese, and swallows. They’re such small targets, if they stay alone, they are more likely to avoid the notice of predators and don’t have to share food sources they find.
- Hummingbirds migrate during the day, from mid-morning to early evening. This is when the air is warmest to help them travel easiest, and flowers and resting spots are easier to spot. In the early morning and late evening, the birds stop to refuel, and they rest at night.
- These birds stay relatively low during migration flights, rather than flying at higher altitudes. This allows them to see blooming flowers, hummingbird feeders, and good spots to shelter when they need to rest.
- When flying, hummingbirds often take advantage of weather patterns to ease their effort. A good tailwind, for example, can help speed hummingbirds on their way. In bad weather, however, these birds will often stop to rest and wait for better traveling conditions.
- Hummingbirds enter hyperphagia just before migration, when their hormones compel them to increase their weight by 25-40 percent. This extra fat will serve as fuel to help them complete their journeys safely.
With these strategies, hummingbirds can migrate vast distances, traveling 20-25 miles per day. It might take a few weeks or even a couple of months for one bird to reach its destination. When they do arrive, we’re all delighted at their appearance.
Hummingbird Migration Timing
Exactly when hummingbirds arrive varies from place to place, but surprisingly these birds have very accurate personal calendars and will often arrive in the same area within just a few days of their arrival the previous year. Sunlight levels and solar angles guide hummingbirds’ migration and alert these birds that the time is right for travel. There are other factors that influence the precise timing of migration, however, including…
- Food Availability– Hummingbirds may speed up or slow down their migration based on local nectar-producing flowers along their route.
- Storms– Strong storms can delay hummingbirds for several days, or if birds are in front of the storm, they may migrate more quickly.
- Distance– The further an individual hummingbird has to travel to reach its new range, the sooner it may begin that journey.
- Age– Mature hummingbirds with more experience will migrate earlier in order to secure the best spaces and strongest mates. Juveniles migrate last.
- Gender– Male hummingbirds typically migrate earlier than females, but the girls are only about 7-10 days behind the males.
In general, hummingbirds in southern areas, including Florida, begin spring migration as early as March, and they will reach the northernmost areas of their breeding range by early to mid-May. Western hummingbirds such as the rufous hummingbird that travels to Alaska, however, may not reach their northern range until mid-June. In fall, hummingbird migration begins as soon as late July or early August, and the birds will reach their wintering range sometime between mid-September and late October.
Migration Routes of Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds do not follow a straight path during migration, but instead follow the richest food sources along their route. In eastern regions, this may mean avoiding the most heavily populated areas where flowers are fewest. In western regions, hummingbirds often migrate north in spring along the coast where flowers bloom earlier, but in fall when the birds head south, they may stay in interior mountain areas where meadows are blooming later in the season.
Because hummingbirds have great site fidelity for good food sources – they easily remember abundant food and return to the same feeding areas from year to year – having feeders available for migrating hummingbirds can encourage repeat visits for many years. As hummingbirds migrate through an area, they will visit feeders to refuel, and even if resident hummingbirds have long since left a particular yard, keeping feeders available will invite passing birds to visit.
See Also: Rufous Hummingbird Identification Tips
From Flickr – Credit: David W. Inouye. Biology Image Library ID 64660 / CC BY 2.0
How You Can Enjoy Migrating Hummingbirds
There are many ways birders can take advantage of hummingbird migration and enjoy a longer season filled with visits from these flying jewels.
- Put hummingbird feeders out early and keep them out late so the earliest and latest migrants can always find food and will remember reliable feeding areas.
- Keep nectar feeders full, particularly early and late in the day when more hummingbirds may visit to refuel.
- Plant nectar-rich flowers with long bloom periods or choose flowers that will rebloom repeatedly. Opt for spring and fall flowers for plenty of food sources.
- Take steps to keep nectar from freezing during late spring frosts or early fall cold snaps so no visiting hummingbird has trouble feeding.
- Provide sturdy thickets to shelter tired hummingbirds by minimizing pruning and choosing plants with dense branches to protect the birds from predators.
Hummingbirds are amazing visitors and some of the most highly anticipated migratory birds to arrive each spring. By understanding their migration patterns, birders will be better able to meet these birds’ needs and help them make their journeys successfully so they will return for many years to come.