With over 330 known species, Hummingbirds are a diverse group of North and South American birds that continue to evolve into new species with new survival strategies. The neotropics of South and Central America offer favorable conditions year-round, although the dozen or so species that visit the United States are mostly migratory.
While species like Costa’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds are present throughout the year, migration is vital for the survival of most American Hummingbirds. It allows them to capitalize on seasonally abundant food sources and raise their young before winter hits and resources disappear.
Their journey is often long and filled with peril, although these tiny birds manage to return to the United States and Canada like clockwork each year to raise the next generation. Read along with us to learn much more about the fascinating migratory behaviors of Hummingbirds!
Rufous Hummingbirds are amongst the migratory hummingbird species
Hummingbirds are diurnal migrants that begin their journey while food is still available, driven by an internal clock that tells them it's time to go. They generally fly low, although they may reach a height of up to a few hundred feet.
We don’t know exactly how they navigate, but they may be using the sun or even the Earth’s magnetic field to stay on course. However, instinct must play a crucial role since young Hummingbirds do not follow their parents on their first migration but still find their way to the overwintering grounds.
Hummingbirds don’t look like long-distance athletes, especially considering their tiny size, small wings, and high daily energy demands. Even so, some species migrate thousands of miles, and some even manage the grueling journey across the open ocean of the Gulf of Mexico! So, how do tiny Hummingbirds travel such long distances?
Hummingbirds have a few tricks up their sleeves to make long-distance travel possible. These birds fatten up considerably before their migration by feeding heavily (a process known as hyperphagia) in the days before departing.
These stored energy reserves allow them to travel further without rest, although they must stop regularly along the way to refuel. Energy is crucial to their survival, and they may even switch from burning glucose to oxidizing fatty acids when making long-distance water crossings.
Hummingbirds fatten up before long-distance travel - pictured, a Ruby-throated hummingbird
Hummingbirds migrate along defined routes, either taking the same path north and south or switching between different routes on each migration. The Rufous Hummingbird of the West and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the East are probably the most impressive examples of Hummingbird migration. Continue reading to learn more about their migration routes.
The Rufous Hummingbird has the longest of all Hummingbird migrations, moving between Mexico in the winter and Alaska in the summer. Interestingly, they take a different route when migrating to and from their breeding grounds, heading north along the West Coast but returning along the Rockies.
Check out this in-depth guide to learn much more about the Rufous Hummingbird migration.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the most widespread species in the East of the United States. These dazzling little birds overwinter in Central America but migrate as far north as Central Canada to breed. Their long journey takes them around the Gulf Coast before striking north into the USA, although some brave birds even cross the open ocean of the Gulf.
Want to learn more about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration? Check out this complete guide.
Some Hummingbird species make much shorter migrations, moving up and down slopes rather than covering long distances north and south. These altitudinal migrants can survive at very high altitudes near the tropics in summer.
Rufous Hummingbird feeding on Hardy Fuchsia Flowers
Hummingbirds visit various parts of the United States as either summer breeding migrants or winter non-breeders. Many species may visit the Gulf Coast and the extreme southeast each winter, while most of the lower 48 states see hummers only in the warmer months.
Hummingbirds migrate twice each year. Their northward migration occurs in the spring when they return to nesting grounds across the United States, Canada, and even Alaska. They head south in the fall, with most species crossing the border into Mexico and Central American countries.
Hummingbirds depart while temperatures are still warm and many plants are still in flower. Although storms may play a role in their timing, the effects of bad weather typically delay them just a few days.
An adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird, foraging on small flowers
Hummingbirds migrate alone, although they will congregate around food sources like patches of flowers or backyard nectar feeders. Hummingbirds do not form stable pairs and only meet up after arriving on the breeding grounds.
Males arrive early to get a headstart on claiming a territory and also leave up to a month before females and juveniles because they are not involved in nesting and caring for the baby Hummingbirds.
Migration is a very costly exercise for Hummingbirds. Despite storing a significant percentage of their body weight in fat before departing, these energetic little birds must visit nectar-filled flowers and Hummingbird feeders along the way.
Bird lovers can help migrating Hummingbirds by hanging out a few nectar feeders and filling them with a 1:4 parts sugar water mixture. Skip the red dye (it has no benefits), but remember to replace the nectar often and keep your feeders clean and hygienic.
Another great way to help hungry hummers on their journey is to grow native flowering plants in your yard or neighborhood. Speak to your local nursery about some tube-shaped, nectar-rich species that will grow well in your area.
Allen’s hummingbird perched on a branch
Hummingbirds face various threats during their migration. They have many potential predators, from invertebrates like spiders and even dragonflies to hawks and cats. Storms can take their toll, as can the windows of our homes and buildings.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Hummingbirds comes from habitat destruction. Logging, farming, and urbanization can be particularly devastating for localized species with specific habitat requirements, although they also affect widespread migrants.
Protecting these migratory birds is a challenge because habitat loss anywhere in their range can have dire effects.
Watching and feeding Hummingbirds is a popular pastime for bird enthusiasts all over North America, which is great for researchers who study their movements.
Dedicated authorized bird banders and ‘citizen scientists’ attract and trap the birds and fit them with unique, lightweight bands. Recapturing these birds provides data on their site fidelity, timing, lifespan, physical condition, and many other fascinating aspects of their migration biology.
Newer techniques and technological advancements are making monitoring and tracking Hummingbird movements possible without needing to recapture the birds.
Tiny radio-frequency identification tags have been developed that can detect tagged birds electronically when they visit feeders fitted with transceivers, and innovative researchers have designed a tracking harness small enough to remotely monitor the movements of Hummingbirds with GPS tags and other ultra-light monitoring devices.
Hopefully, these and other advancements will continue to illuminate the mysteries and marvels of the Hummingbird migration!
Female (left) and male (right) Ruby-throated Hummingbirds
Fortunately, many American birdwatchers don’t need to go far to witness the spectacle of Hummingbird migration. By hanging out a few Hummingbird feeders and planting some colorful nectar-rich wildflowers, you could enjoy sightings of migrating hummers almost anywhere in the United States.
Photographing and filming Hummingbirds can be a challenge because of their small size and great speed. Photographers will need good light (or a flash) and a high shutter speed to freeze the action.
Prefocusing on a spot around your feeder or a blooming flower could also save you some frustration in the heat of the moment. Fortunately, these busy little birds can become remarkably tame, and you can usually get some great shots and sightings with a little patience.
A pair of Fiery-throated hummingbirds feeding on nectar
Hummingbirds are true marvels of the bird world. They are the smallest avians on Earth, yet some species travel over 6,000 miles each year to reproduce and then depart in time to escape the coming winter.
It’s pretty remarkable to think that these tiny creatures manage to travel these immense distances, sometimes arriving at points along the way on the same date each year, all by relying on their instincts and natural sense of timing and direction.
Fortunately, you can play your own role in supporting these living jewels by creating a suitable natural habitat and feeding area for migrating and nesting hummers. If you’re lucky, you might just find yourself admiring these beautiful birds in your own backyard this migration season!
Lucifer hummingbirds are partially migratory
We still don’t know how Hummingbirds find their way back to their breeding grounds each year, although they can be remarkably punctual, with some individual birds returning to the same feeders on the same day each year!
Instinct plays a huge role, and the birds probably use environmental cues like the Earth’s magnetic field and the position of the sun in the sky to steer their course.
The total distance that Hummingbirds cover on migration varies depending on their species. Some travel just miles, while others travel over 3000 miles one-way!
You can participate in Hummingbird conservation by supporting local and foreign conservation organizations that protect their natural habitats.
Whether you own a ranch or a small suburban yard, you can also help hummers by creating and conserving natural habitats with native flowering plant species. No area is too small to support native biodiversity!
Calliope hummingbirds spend their winters in Central America
Most Hummingbird species are not migratory and remain year-round in the tropics of South America. Some species are even present throughout the year in the warmer climates of California and Southwestern states like Arizona.
You might see large numbers of Hummingbirds gathered around a nectar source, although you’ll notice them coming and going on their own if you watch closely. These territorial little birds prefer to migrate solo.
Hummingbirds do not need to migrate in pairs because they find a new partner each year. Females select a male with a good territory and impressive courtship display after arriving on their breeding grounds and go their separate ways after mating.
Female Anna's Hummingbird during the winter
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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