Hummingbirds never cease to amaze, and they’ve got a few tricks up their tiny sleeves when it comes to migration. These super-compact birds are record-breakers in many categories - their hearts beat thousands of times a minute, they’re extremely fast, and of course, they’re the smallest birds in the world. But, here we’ll be addressing the question: do hummingbirds migrate?
Many North American hummingbirds migrate every year from their northern breeding grounds. Many of the major North American hummingbirds migrate - the Rufous, Black-chinned, Allen’s, and Ruby-throated hummingbirds - and some travel colossal distances. For example, the Rufous hummingbird travels from as far north as Alaska to Mexico, a journey of some 3,000 miles (4,800km)!
Hummingbird migration is awe-inspiring, and they can mix it with some of the world’s greatest migratory birds despite their tiny size. The Rufous hummingbird has the longest migratory journey of any bird relative to size, and its journey isn’t exactly easy either, as they often travel straight over the rocky mountains - a tremendous feat for a bird that barely measures 3-inches long!
What’s more, is that many hummingbirds migrate in one continuous journey. For example, Ruby-throated hummingbirds are capable of flying for over 1,200 miles (2,000 km) without stopping once!
But that’s not it; read on to learn more about the incredible migratory journeys of these wonderful record-smashing birds!
Rufous Hummingbirds are amongst the migratory hummingbird species
Most hummingbirds migrate south when fall starts to descend at the end of summer, in the months of July, August, and September. Their primary migratory cue is the diminishing daylight hours, rather than food or temperature.
Some northerly populations of Ruby-throated, Allen’s, and Rufous hummingbirds leave in July, but most travel in August and some in September. At the end of winter, hummingbirds head north as early as February.
The males often travel first with more mature birds, likely due to their experience and desire to secure the best wintering grounds - this is the same both when the birds leave their breeding grounds in fall and when they leave their wintering grounds at the end of winter.
Hummingbirds migrate in quest of food sources and warmer climates, though food is undoubtedly the primary motivation.
In winter, insect life becomes much less abundant, and many essential flowers begin to die off to return next spring. As a result, hummingbirds need to seek out new food sources.
Hummingbirds migrate to find new flowers and food, often taking them as far south as Central and South America. Quite why some hummingbirds travel so many miles when they could probably suffice traveling a much shorter distance is a mystery!
An adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, foraging on small flowers
Hummingbird migration is highly variable - some travel very short distances, whereas others migrate thousands of miles.
Many North American hummingbirds migrate vast distances:
Hummingbird migrations are time-consuming, but these indomitable creatures are relentless and can travel hundreds of miles in one day.
Remarkably, many hummingbirds can travel over 25 miles per hour, but their migration can still take nearly 50 days or longer! This also accounts for stopping to refuel every week or so.
Some Ruby-throated hummingbirds that only travel around 500 miles during migration complete the whole trip in one go, which takes 22 hours.
Allen’s hummingbird perched on a branch
Hummingbirds migration is generally triggered by declining daylight hours. Once the day becomes sufficiently shortened, a cascade of hormonal changes kickstarts the hummingbird’s innate desire to migrate. As such, hummingbirds are said to be instinctive migrators.
Some hummingbirds take months to prepare for their migration. For example, Ruby-throated hummingbirds increase their weight from 3 grams to over 6 grams prior to setting off on their journey. However, by the time they arrive at their wintering grounds, their weight might drop to 2.5g.
A well-known myth posits that hummingbirds migrate on the backs of other larger birds like geese, but this is categorically incorrect. However, hummingbirds have been observed following other larger birds, especially when traveling over water. Whether or not this is a coincidence or is a strategic choice is still unclear.
Hummingbirds almost always migrate alone, and not in a flock with other hummingbirds.
They’re highly territorial and generally solitary birds and don’t enjoy being close to each other at the best of times! This makes hummingbird migration that little bit more amazing, as they don’t rely on each other to navigate like other birds.
Female (left) and male (right) Ruby-throated Hummingbirds
How hummingbirds manage to navigate their perilous journeys baffles scientists.
Hummingbirds likely sense the earth’s magnetic field and also have an immense sensitivity to light, including UV light, which might help them navigate. Some have also been observed following other birds, but it seems unlikely this is strategic.
Most hummingbirds in upper North America migrate at least partially, though not all Rufous, Allen’s, Calliope, Black-chinned, and Ruby-throated hummingbirds travel the whole distance. Anna’s hummingbirds are partially migratory, as are the Costa’s and Lucifer hummingbirds.
Less common North American hummingbirds such as the Violet-Crowned and Blue-Throated hummingbirds migrate just short distances between the southwestern USA to Central and South America.
In Central and South America, many hummingbirds are just short-distance migrants, if they migrate at all. For example, the Violet sabrewing and Berylline hummingbird migrate from high to low altitudes, depending on weather conditions.
Lucifer hummingbirds are partially migratory
Hummingbirds primarily migrate in search of food, but warmth may also play a part (though the two go hand in hand). Non-migratory hummingbirds have all they need nearby (food, shelter, etc), and therefore don’t need to migrate.
Though hummingbirds seem likely to perish in cold conditions, many are hardy enough to breed in cold conditions, and some northerly populations survive on minimal flowers and can even fast without food for 2 to 3 days.
The migratory behaviors of hummingbirds are still quite confusing to researchers - why do they travel so far when they can likely survive at higher latitudes? Why do some hummingbirds undertake colossal migrations while others stay where they are? There is still much to learn about these complex, delicate and enigmatic birds.
Long-distance migratory hummingbirds such as the Rufous and Ruby-throated hummingbirds travel from Canada and the north USA to Central and South America. Rufous hummingbirds travel to Mexico, and the Ruby-throated hummingbirds also travel to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. The Calliope hummingbird similarly travels to Central America, ending up in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua.
Medium-distance North American hummingbirds like the Anna’s and Allen’s travel shorter distances. The mostly-resident Anna’s hummingbird migrates from the Pacific Northwest down through California, whereas Allen’s migrate from Oregon and California to northern Mexico.
In Central and South America, hummingbirds may still migrate short distances when the temperatures drop in their high-altitude mountain habitats. Instead of traveling south, they merely just travel down the mountain until they find warmer habitats.
Calliope hummingbirds spend their winters in Central America
Hummingbirds that breed in the north USA and Canada often migrate, but some do stay north and bed down in freezing conditions. Many hummingbirds like the Rufous and Anna’s live in Alaska and Canada are extremely cold-hardy, and have developed some special techniques to stay warm.
Usually, hummingbirds have ultra-fast metabolisms, hence why they feast on a steady diet of sugar-rich nectar. In winter, a hummingbird’s metabolism can slow down considerably, and they enter an energy-conservation state called “torpor.” In torpor, a hummingbird’s heartbeat slows, and their body heat almost halves from above 100F (38C) to 50F (10C) and below. This enables them to expend just enough energy to keep themselves warm.
While hummingbirds tend to have ravenous high-sugar appetites, some species, such as the Anna’s hummingbird, can be quite conservative when they need to. This also helps them save energy in the winter.
Female Anna's Hummingbird during the winter
Despite Anna’s hummingbirds living as far north as British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington State, they’re very hardy and don’t always migrate at all. Some northern populations do make a series of successive southerly movements down south, but these don’t usually constitute a full migration. Anna’s hummingbirds are mostly resident in their mid-Pacific coastal range.
Rufous hummingbirds travel a momentous 4,000 miles from Alaska to Mexico. This extraordinary long migration is 78 million times the bird’s body length of 3 to 4 inches. If it were the same size as a human, the Rufous hummingbird’s migration would take it around the world three times.
What’s more is that the Rufous hummingbird completes this journey every year, in around a month or less.
Hummingbirds migrate back north at the end of winter, in around February or March. Their trip north is the same as their trip south, as many hummingbirds return to the exact same breeding grounds every year.
This is a myth, but hummingbirds have been known to follow other larger birds when migrating over water. However, geese are unlikely to be present, as they tend to migrate at high altitudes of over 5,000 feet.
Rufous Hummingbird feeding on Hardy Fuchsia Flowers
Quite a few hummingbirds migrate to and from Arizona. The Black-chinned, Broad-billed, and Costa’s hummingbird both spend time in Arizona, whereas the Violet-Crowned and Blue-Throated hummingbirds can travel short distances between Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona. The southwestern corner of Arizona features some 13 species of hummingbirds throughout the year!
Anna’s hummingbirds are residents in Oregon, but some do migrate to California. Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds migrate through Oregon each year, heading from Washington, Oregon, and Canada to their wintering grounds in the south USA and Central America.
Many species of hummingbirds live in California, and some do migrate, including the Black-chinned, Costa’s, and Rufous hummingbirds.
Georgia is home to some 11 species, and many of these migrate, including the Allen’s, Rufous, Broad-billed, Ruby-throated, and Calliope hummingbirds.
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