Birds & Birding

Hummingbirds Make an Incredible Journey North

March 14, 2018

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

It’s time to think about hummingbirds? Now?

Sure, it may be winter, but I’m watching for 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 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.

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.

Migration in a Changing World

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.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Monongahela National Forest area near Dry Fork, West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason

“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 immediately 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.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Monongahela National Forest area near Dry Fork, West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason

“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, observations in recent years 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.”

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration Map

You can see the difference in the timing of ruby-throated hummingbird arrivals during a cooler spring in 2013.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Migration Map

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

Report Your Hummingbirds

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

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, the Journey North hummingbird identification guide includes 15 species commonly found in the US and Canada.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird chicks in Brighton, Michigan. Photo © Jim Ridley

Your observations will appear on the migration map.

Journey North has facts, teaching resources and more materials for kids (and curious adults) to learn more about hummingbirds.

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

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

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. 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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10 comments

  1. I’m getting my feeder ready tonight and will put it out this weekend!

  2. Thanks so much. Can’t wait for my buddies to come back. I’ll report my first sighting here in The Smoky Mountains!

  3. Thank you for the article. I don’t often see Ruby Throateds, butI love watching my Hummers at the feeder here in Napa, Ca. all year round. My feeder hangs near my Lemon tree, which is blossoming from late February through spring and early summer. I hope that between the citrus and the feeder they are getting the winter nutrients they need.

  4. Was buzzed by a hummingbird last week around Mar 10, here in the central CA Sierras so set out a feeder but only the one so far.

  5. Be certain to let people know not to use the red dyed liquid food for the hummingbirds, clear is fine because all feeders I have ever seen have red on them to attract the hummingbirds; 1 C water, 1/4 C white granulated sugar, boil 1 min I believe is correct.

  6. Thank you for all that you have done & continue to do to save OUR EARTH.

  7. We have snow on its way so I hope they wait another week for Illinois and Indiana. Anxiously awaiting them though.

  8. I put my feeder out last week no humming birds yet but I will see them soon zephyrhills florida