One of the most interesting bird feeder observations this time of year is the annual migration of the ruby-throated hummingbird. Hummingbird migration is one of the most highly anticipated bird migrations in North America, and knowing when these small birds make their seasonal movements can help backyard birders be well prepared to welcome them to their yards.

Even though hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, their migrations can span hundreds or thousands of miles. While there are more than 300 hummingbird species, only a handful of them regularly migrate. Most of the hummingbirds of North America do migrate seasonally between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds, migrating at the same time every year. Unlike many birds, however, hummingbirds migrate individually and do not travel in seasonal flocks. So how do the ruby-throated hummingbirds know when to migrate?

The most important factor that determines the timing of hummingbird migration is daylight. As the light levels change seasonally, hummingbirds will purposefully eat more to gain weight that will turn into valuable energy for their long flight.

Other factors that influence hummingbird migration include:

Food: Hummingbirds will move along their migration journeys as food sources (nectar-producing flowers and insects) appear and disappear.

Weather: Local storms and strong winds can impact hummingbird migration to a minor degree.

Age: Mature birds often start their migration earlier than juvenile birds. Younger birds take longer to build up their new strength and maturity before starting the long migration journey.

Gender: Male ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate a few days before females to establish winter territories. 

Distance: The further hummingbirds have to migrate, the sooner they start their journey. The typical distance for Ruby-throated hummingbirds during fall migration is from southern Canada to Mexico or Central America, beginning migration as early as July, though most hummingbirds don’t begin their southward movements until late August or mid-September.

Backyard bird watchers can help the migrating hummingbirds by putting their feeders up early in the spring and keeping them up until late fall. That way the birds have a ready food source no matter how the local flowers are blooming. Other ways to help migrating hummingbirds include planting flowers to attract hummingbirds with a natural food source and taking steps to keep hummingbird nectar from freezing in the late fall.

Knowing the migration patterns of the ruby-throated hummingbird can help bird watchers anticipate these beautiful birds, and taking steps to help them on their journey will ensure successful migrations for generations to come.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds

fun facts

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds aggressively defend flowers and feeders, leading to spectacular chases and dogfights, and occasional jabs with the beak.

The ruby-throated hummingbird beats its wings about 53 times a second. 

Adult birds weigh between 2 to 6 grams (2/10 of an ounce).

The extremely short legs of the ruby-throated hummingbird prevent it from walking or hopping. The best it can do is shuffle along a perch.

Like many birds, they have good color vision and can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, which humans can not.

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds don’t stick around long. Pairs are together long enough for courtship and mating-just a matter of days to weeks. Then he’s off on his own, and may begin migration by early August.

Habitat: Ruby-throated hummingbirds are found in deciduous hardwood forests of eastern North America as well as across the Canadian prairies, commonly associated with old fields, meadows, and backyards.

Food: Ruby-throats feed on the nectar orange tubular flowers such as the pet creeper, cardinal flower and bee-balm. Hummingbirds also catch insects in midair and pull them out of spider webs. Main insect prey includes mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies and small bees.

Nesting: The nest is made of thistle or dandelion down that is held together with strands of spider silk and tree resin. The nest is built directly on top of a branch rather than in a fork.

Hummingbird nest

Females lay one to three eggs, incubate them for about two weeks, and then feed their young for about three weeks.