Hummingbird Migration: How Gardeners Can Support The Journey South
By Katrina Godshalk
Faster than a speeding Robin, lighter than a nickel, hungry as a post-hibernation bear… it’s a hummingbird!
The smallest birds in the world, hummingbirds delight us in almost every state of the Union and Canada. In some areas in the South and the West, they are even year-round residents. But for the rest of us, we are way stops on their journey–-north in the spring to nest and raise young, and as the days begin to shorten, they begin their journey back to Mexico and Central America.
They migrate south for warmer climates, traveling thousands of miles, often crossing hundreds of miles of water to reach their winter homes. By February, they’re beginning to fatten up and commence the flight northward, towards their breeding grounds in the US and Canada. After raising their young, beginning in mid-July in the North and on into early September, the great migration south begins again.
Hummingbirds Of The United States
Of the 338 known hummingbird species, 12-15 species regularly migrate to North America, but two species make up the majority of the US hummingbird population.
Found primarily east of the Mississippi, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds glitter like jewels in the sunlight. Arriving in spring, they mate. The female builds a nest, lays and incubates two eggs, and feeds her young until they fledge (leave the nest), a process of about six weeks. David Rankin, assistant specialist at UC Riverside, adds, “In addition to nectar, hummingbirds eat a large number of insects to get the protein they need, especially when they are nesting.”
Another migrating hero, the Rufous Hummingbirds, migrate in the spring, north from southern Mexico. Rufous Hummingbirds are increasingly seen through the East as well, albeit in small numbers, with some Rufous even spending their winters in the Southeastern US, instead of Mexico.
Amazing Feats Of Flying
As the days begin to shorten, the flowers change and perhaps an inner prompting signals it’s time for migration. They begin the long journey south, often the males depart first, followed by the females and young. Each flyer follows its individual path, and they do not fly in flocks.
As it reaches the southern coast, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird will double its weight, from 3 grams to 6 grams or more! This weight gain will be completely consumed as they travel across the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of about 500 miles. They often arrive at their destination weighing a mere 2.5 grams.
This 18-to-22-hour journey over water is an amazing feat for these tiny solitary flyers. With a heart rate of over 500 beats per minute and wings that flutter 50 times per second or more, good sources of nectar-rich plants and hummingbird feeders play a crucial role in their modern-day migration success.
The Rufous Hummingbirds migrate north from southern Mexico, along the west coast, to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska, for a journey of up to 4,000 miles! In July, they begin the return trip, usually along the Rocky Mountains back to Mexico, making a clockwise circuit of the West. As they migrate they will carry 30-40% extra weight as fat, burning the fat as energy, stopping periodically to fatten up again.
Once in Mexico or their winter home, hummingbirds find nectar-rich flowers that will nourish and sustain them in their new location. By February or so, according to their inner timetable, they begin to prepare for the migration north.
A hummingbird visits an Agastache cana Rosita.
How Do Hummingbirds Find Their Way?
According to Ross Hawkins of the Hummingbird Society in Sedona AZ, “Scientists believe they are guided in part by the polarization of light in the sky and magnetic fields which they can sense; part of it may also be hard-wired into their brains.” Juveniles undertake this journey as well, but it’s a solitary flight, and they rely on their genetic lineage to guide them.
A hummingbird visits Agastache rupestris, or Licorice Hummingbird Mint
What Can A Gardener Do To Help Hummingbird Migration?
- Plant Nectar-Rich Perennials
Understanding the migrations and high energy needs of our hummingbirds gives us the opportunity to have a positive impact on their survival, simply by planting some nectar-rich perennials in our landscapes. Also, important for their well-being, is that we practice organic gardening methods, eliminating or severely restricting the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Birds, bees, healthy soil, pets, and families – all can thrive when organic garden care is practiced.
"Most hummingbirds in the US are doing very well, probably as a result of people planting flowers with long bloom season and putting up hummingbird feeders,” said Rankin. “Hummingbird feeders are a great way to ensure that you and see some up close, and can be heavily used during spring and fall migrations when other sources of food might be harder to find, or during droughts when flowers are harder to come by.”
- Choose Early and Late Blooming Perennial Varieties
Make sure to have late and early season nectar flowers available. According to Ross Hawkins, “Hummingbirds have impeccable memories for good food sources. Once your garden is on “the list”, they will appear year after year.” On an average day, a hummingbird will consume up to 50% of its body weight in nectar. As they prepare to migrate, they increase their nectar and insect consumption even more. David Salman, Chief Horticulturist at High Country Gardens, has long emphasized the importance of bloom times in creating a landscape that brings pleasure to the eye and nourishment to pollinators. It’s a win-win consideration and because of its importance to migrating hummingbirds, it’s beneficial to consider what time of year hummingbirds visit your area. David recommends starting with some hummingbird favorites such as:
- Aquilegia (Columbine) - blooms in spring
- Penstemon (Beardtongue) - blooms late spring to summer
- Salvia (Sage) - blooms late spring to fall
- Lonicera (esp. Lonicera sempervirens) (Honeysuckle) - blooms in summer
- Hesperalone Parviflora (Texas Red Yucca) - blooms in summer
- Agastache (Hummingbird Mint) - blooms summer to fall
- Scrophularia (Red Birds In A Tree) - blooms mid-summer through fall
Additional Hummingbird Resources
- To learn more about creating a hummingbird habitat in your garden, read our guide: How To Make Your Yard A Hummingbird Magnet
- The Hummingbirds Are Back! Learn more about our Chief Horticulturist's New Mexico hummingbird garden.
- Working To Protect A Jewel Of The Americas: an interview with the late Ross Hawkins, founder of The Hummingbird Society.
Fill Your Garden With Natural Nectar For Hummingbirds
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