Citizen Science

How Hummingbirds Journey North

March 3, 2015

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A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding. Photo © Lewis Feldkamp

What is Hummingbirds Journey North?

It’s time to think about hummingbirds? Now?

Sure, it may be winter, but very soon you may see an almost magical green shimmer hovering and zipping among the first flowers of spring.

That’s right, it’s almost time to hang your hummingbird feeders. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have already been sighted in the southern U.S. and will arrive in more Eastern US states in the coming months.

“It’s as if Tinkerbell came to life,” says Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Journey North, a non-profit that works to track wildlife migrations. “As a kid, most things aren’t quite what you thought, but hummingbirds are even better.”

You can help scientists to learn more about these birds and their daunting migration (some cross the Gulf of Mexico — 500 miles in a matter of hours!) by tracking them with Hummingbirds on Journey North.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration Map

With so many people observing, scientists can learn new things about what drives hummingbird migrations (daylight, food sources, temperature?), how fast and far hummingbirds fly, and what they need to survive the trip.

Why is Hummingbird Migration Important?

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may seem like a common species of little concern, but as climate changes, scientists are concerned that their migration may fall out of synch with food sources. Every calorie counts for hummingbirds on their grueling migration.

“Hummingbirds have such a fast metabolism that they’re always on the edge of starvation,” Howard says. “They typically eat every fifteen minutes. They gorge before migration, almost doubling their weight in the week before they leave.”

Even so the journey takes so much energy that it is essential for them to find a habitat with food sources when they arrive in the southern US.

“They may only need that habitat for a matter of hours, but without it they just couldn’t complete migration,” Howard explains.

The Nature Conservancy protects habitat along the Gulf of Mexico and in other areas to provide refuge to hummingbirds and other returning migratory birds.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo © Jeremy Meyer/Flickr
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo © Jeremy Meyer/Flickr

“One of the most important things that citizen science does is generate questions,” says Howard. “With so many people watching even for a common species like the ruby-throat, they may see things that are not conventional scientific wisdom.”

For example, recent observations call into question how ruby-throats decide when to migrate.

“In spring 2012, there was a heat wave. Most years, hummingbirds appear to migrate in response to daylight — they usually move in lock-step with day lengths,” Howard reports. “That year we got reports farther north and far earlier than ever before for hummingbirds. Normally around April 1st we would see hummingbirds at 38° N and that year they were at 48° N — about 500 miles ahead of where they would typically be.”

In April of 2014, one woman in South Dakota found a hummingbird in her garage that must have been driven by a storm the previous day and had died. She was able to submit a picture to Journey North and report the anomaly.

Without a citizen science monitoring network and a place for people to report, scientists would not have known that these changes to migration were happening.

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Photo © Lewis Feldkamp
A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Photo © Lewis Feldkamp

Now, because of citizen science reports, there are new questions about how hummingbirds decide to adjust their migration in warmer years.

How Can You Get Involved?

If you have hummingbird feeders or a garden with nectar sources that are frequented by hummingbirds, create an account with Journey North to submit your sightings.

Follow this checklist to report the first hummingbird that you see, the nectar sources that you see them use and more.

If you aren’t sure what kind of hummingbirds you see in your yard, use the Journey North hummingbird identification guide — it includes 15 species commonly found in the US and Canada.

Your observations will appear on the migration map.

Are you a teacher or just curious? Journey North has facts, resources and more materials for kids (of all ages) to learn more about hummingbirds.

Watch for that green shimmer in your yard and help scientists understand the migration of these feisty little birds.


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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16 comments

  1. We live on the Pamlico River just west of the inner coastal, Beaufort County NC. Our last Hummers left in the mid October ’14, then on the 11/1/14 a single female Ruby showed up at the lone feeder we left-up and stayed until 2/8/15. This is roughly the same pattern that has occurred the last 3 years.

    1. john, your female was most likely a rufous female, not a ruby throated bird.

  2. I have been feeding hummingbirds for about 10 years here in Orange, CA. I have some amazing video of the hundreds of birds we get to our feeders all year round. We get a big influx of migrators in Feb-Mar. Then we get our babies several times thru spring and summer. I have 4 qt. feeders that get drained about every day. It’s a party! We also have a dozen or so Oriels that come to the feeders throughout the day. It’s very fun to do the dishes these days! How can I send a video(s) to show others what we love so much?

    1. Hi Kathryn, Thank you! I would love to see your videos. The best solution that I can think of is to put the videos on YouTube and share the links here.

  3. Someone recently told me that my mixture of sugan and water is not good for my lovely hummers. He said I should use honey rather than cane sugar. Is this true?

  4. Laura…do NOT use honey when making hummingbird nectar. Honey can actually contain impurities that are toxic to hummingbirds…and get deadly quickly. Most recipes for nectar state that a four to one ratio of water to granulated sugar is best. Heat the mixture to a boil and then let it cool. Store in covered containers. Enjoy the beauty and magic of these amazing creatures!

  5. We are now near the end of Summer, so I know there is no Hummingbird migration now.I want to register so I can be involved in the Spring 2016.
    Margie Hill
    Pearcy, Arkansas

  6. Still have 1 hummingbird at feeder. It is Oct 13th. Is this unusual? I live in northern Minnesota

  7. Lisa, I live in the Pacific Northwest and we have hummingbirds that stay all year long. I noticed on the map that the migration shows only the Eastern half of the U.S. Do the hummingbirds in the west not migrate or is it just the Ruby throated that is being talked about here?

    1. Hi Toby, Journey North focuses on the ruby throat for the maps. In part because some of the west coast hummingbirds (like the Anna’s) tend to stay year-round. I believe that the rufous hummingbird does migrate in the western US, but they’re not covered in this Journey North project.

  8. The Hummingbird Monitoring Network is a project http://www.hummonnet.org that has been working on the conservation of hummingbirds in the west since 2002. These people are remarkable and volunteers and citizen scientists can be of tremendous help to them. I’ve had the privilege of doing a little volunteer work with them last year and it was an awesome experience. Hopefully, you will find them as exciting as I do.

  9. I just read other comments. There are quite a few of migraters in the west. Some Anna’s will migrate and Costa’s is mainly found in the desert of California, but the Calliope, our smallest hummingbird migrates up to the northwest. The Rufous, Allens, Broad Tailed, are also western migraters that go north. Many of these arrive via , southeast AZ and then continue north. Others that migrate into southeast AZ are Blue Throated, Magnificent, Broad Billed, Violet Crowned, Lucifer, Black Chin and others that appear occasionally. In Texas there is the Black Chin, as well and in southern Texas the Buff Bellied Hummer. Others may make rare appearances. Again, I suggest checking out the Hummingbird Monitoring Network for the western migraters