Hummingbirds are the most anticipated backyard birds in North America, but when will hummingbirds migrate? Knowing when these birds are doing seasonal exercise can help backyard birds prepare to welcome them in and out of their courtyards, gardens and feeders.
About Hummingbird Migration
Although hummingbirds are the world’s smallest birds, they can migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Although there are more than 300 hummingbirds, only a few migrate regularly. Most hummingbirds in North America do migrate seasonally between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. However, unlike many birds, hummingbirds migrate alone and do not travel in seasonal flocks. They migrate during the day, maintain low pressure, pay close attention to feeding opportunities, and rest at night.
Backyard birders who have been feeding hummingbirds for years quickly learned that the migration patterns of these birds can be very predictable. Individual birds usually migrate at the same time each year, even arriving and leaving the same yard within a day or two. But how do they know when it’s time to migrate?
When hummingbirds migrate
Several factors affect the migration of hummingbirds and when the birds set out on long journeys. The most important factor in determining the hummingbird’s migration time is daylight: the amount of daylight and the angle of the sun’s position relative to the bird. As light levels change seasonally, hummingbirds deliberately eat more, gaining 25 to 40 percent of their body weight through hyperphages when their hormones change to force them to gain weight. This extra fat will be a valuable energy for their upcoming long-haul flights.
Other factors that affect hummingbird migration include:
- Natural food sources: As food sources appear and disappear, hummingbirds will move along migration routes. The most important food source is nectar production, but the availability of insects is also a factor affecting the speed at which hummingbirds migrate and reproduce. This is especially true in spring, as rich insects are a key food source for hummingbirds to get enough protein to grow up healthy.
- Weather patterns: Localstorms and strong winds can have a slight effect on hummingbird migration, delaying the birds’ travel by a day or two. During spring migration, hummingbirds may be caught by the bird’s sediment. In bad autumn weather, migratory hummingbirds may be in a safe place for a week or two, waiting for better travel conditions.
- Age: Mature birds usually begin to migrate earlier than young birds. Young hummingbirds take longer to build their new strength and maturity before embarking on a long migration journey. Birds hatched earlier this year may migrate earlier than young birds with late breeding seasons.
- Bird Sex: In some hummingbird species, such as ruby hummingbirds, males migrate in the first few days of female snares. This gives the male birds time to establish territory so that they can successfully court the arrival of females at the start of the breeding season. They follow the same autumn migration pattern to establish winter territory.
- Total migration distance: The further the hummingbirds must migrate, the sooner they begin their journey. For example, the hummingbird is the longest-migrating species of any hummingbird species – traveling between Mexico and Alaska – and may have migrated long before other hummingbird species travel.
Illustration: Evan Polangi. © Spruce, 2019
In the spring, hummingbirds could start flying north as early as January, taking months to reach the breeding grounds and reaching the northernmost end of their range in mid-May. In the autumn, some species begin to migrate as early as July, although most hummingbirds do not migrate south until late August or mid-September.
Helping migratory hummingbirds
Backyard birds can take several steps to help migrate hummingbirds. Feeding hummingbirds prevents them from migrating, one of the most common bird feeding myths. This is not true at all. In fact, shrewd birds put hummingbird feeders together early in spring and stay edgy in the fall, so that the birds have ready-made food sources no matter how the local flowers bloom. Other ways to help migrate hummingbirds include:
- Plant flowers to attract hummingbirds with natural food sources, including early and late flowering flowers, and plenty of nectar in spring and autumn.
- Nesting materials are provided during spring migrations, providing fast and easy nesting for breeding hummingbirds to raise young birds.
- Take measures to prevent hummingbird nectar from icing in late autumn, so late-migrating hummingbirds can still be used.
- Keep hummingbird feeders clean and regularly replace spoiled nectar with fresh sugar ymes so hungry hummingbirds will be safe and healthy.
- Support hummingbird winter conservation initiatives and habitat conservation so that they have safe territory at both ends of migration.
Knowing that hummingbirds migrate, birds can predict when they will see these beautiful birds and take steps to help them ensure the successful migration of future generations of hummingbirds.