Few birds cause as much excitement as the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) when they return to forests, parks, and backyards across the eastern half of the United States. These birds are a joy to watch as they zip around, feeding on nectar from wildflowers and feeders, but their migration is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of their biology.
Their annual disappearance puzzles many, but like many American birds, they will return nest when the weather warms. Would you like to know when and where they travel?
A small number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds overwinter in Florida, but most leave the United States and head south to Mexico and Central America. When the days grow longer, they return to breed from Texas and Florida in the south to Maine and central Alberta in the north.
Migrating Hummingbirds don’t get much time to rest in America. Their year is split into nesting, overwintering, and migration periods, repeated annually with pretty precise timing.
What’s so remarkable about these birds is their ability to travel such immense distances despite their tiny size. However, their success relies on good preparation, and they may double their weight to fatten up for a journey that may cover over 2000 miles (3200 km).
There’s a lot more to learn about Ruby-throated Hummingbird movements. Read along to discover why, when, and how they migrate.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have one of the most impressive migrations - particularly because of their size, and the distance they cover
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate twice each year between their breeding and overwintering grounds. Their movements explain their abundance at some times of the year and absence at others.
Continue reading to learn when these long-distance migrants might arrive in your state.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds arrive and depart from their summer breeding grounds at roughly the same time each year, although weather conditions may delay or speed up their journey. Let’s take a look at the approximate times that most arrive and leave so that you can predict when they might turn up in your area.
In the north, males leave and arrive noticeably earlier than female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They can afford to depart a little earlier because they do not care for their young, but they return earlier to claim a nesting territory in time for the females’ arrival.
Close up of a male Ruby-throated hummingbird with spread wings
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds nest in the warmer months in the United States and Canada. Insects, sap, and nectar are plentiful at this time of the year, but as the days grow shorter, the birds must head south, where it is warmer and food supplies are more abundant.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate as far as Canada in the north and Panama in the south, a journey that can span over 2000 miles one way.
These tiny wonders flap their wings 50-70 times each second, so the energy required for such a journey is hard to imagine. To prepare for this feat, the hummingbirds will lay down enough fat to nearly double their weight.
Ruby-throated hummingbird migration can span over 4,000 miles (there and back combined) - female pictured
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can cover the distance between their American breeding grounds and Central America in just two weeks, an amazing speed for a species with a 4-inch (10 cm) wingspan.
However, these birds arrive and depart in waves, so the total migration is staggered over time. Some birds will still be enjoying the heat of the Yucatan when the first hummers land in New England.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate between Central America and the United States and Canada. The Gulf of Mexico is the greatest obstacle in their path. This 500-mile-wide stretch of ocean separates Central America and Mexico from the southern United States.
The hummers have three options to travel between their breeding and overwintering grounds. Read on to learn more about their routes.
Many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds choose the longer (but safer) route along the Gulf Coast and south along the east coast of Mexico. The distance may be significantly longer, but this route allows plenty of opportunities to rest and feed. Flying up through the Central Flyway is the most direct route for birds that breed in central and western Canada.
The Gulf crossing is arguably the most impressive feat performed by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Many fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico, flying low through the night. After arriving, they do not stay long before continuing northwards.
When flying south, they tend to leave the coast in the morning, but the journey is often too long to complete before nightfall. Tired and hungry hummingbirds may visit ships and boats in the gulf, often investigating red objects like fire extinguishers in hope of finding nectar.
A small number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may cross the open waters to the Cayman Islands and then to western Cuba before crossing the Straits of Florida to reach the American mainland.
Male Ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds take about twenty hours to cross the gulf of Mexico, which is an incredible feat for a bird that eights less than an ⅛ of an ounce (3.5 g). They can fly faster and further in favorable winds, and north and west winds are helpful in their northern breeding range.
Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds cannot complete the entire migration without stopping to rest and refuel along the way. However, with a maximum range of about 600 miles (965 km), some short-distance migrants could complete their journey in a single flight.
The individuals that cross the Gulf of Mexico must fly nonstop since there is nowhere to perch until they reach dry land. Some tired birds seek respite on boats and oil rigs, but most will power through in a single flight.
Some of the short distance migrations can be completed in a single flight
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not all migrate together but rather arrive in waves. However, each bird migrates on their own. This behavior means each individual must have an innate knowledge of the route it needs to follow and the timing it needs to keep.
All Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate, although they may use varying routes and migrate to different areas. These birds are usually only present in the US during the warmer months of the year, and even those that do not return to Central America have migrated from further north in the United States or Canada.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate from the following American states:
Female Ruby-throated hummingbird feeding on nectar
Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate out of the USA in the fall, although a small number spend the winter in the south of Florida and Louisiana each year. The rest will migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to settle along the west coast of Mexico and as far south as Panama.
They occupy various habitats, from forest to scrub and agricultural areas from the coast to altitudes of over 9800 feet (3000 m). Ruby-throated Hummingbirds overwinter in the following countries:
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have a wide distribution. They are the most widespread species in the Trochilidae family to visit the eastern United States and the only hummers that breed there.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds’ summer range encompasses mixed woodlands, deciduous forests, and Southern boreal forests from the Gulf Coast and Florida Peninsula in the south to central Alberta and southern Quebec in the North.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have a considerably wide distribution
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate during the daylight hours. However, they must fly after dark when crossing the Gulf of Mexico since the journey takes over twenty hours, and there is nowhere to land.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds generally migrate singly, and males, females, and juveniles have slightly different starting dates. Males usually depart first, and young birds migrate last in the fall.
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