Science of Spring Hummingbird Migration

by Ernie on April 8, 2014

The Science of Spring Hummingbird Migration

The Science of Spring Hummingbird Migration

Spring is here, and depending on where you are, you’ve probably started seeing hummingbirds in your area. While you’re getting ready to get out your feeders, how about stopping to learn a bit about the science of Hummingbird migration?

Most people know that birds fly south for the winter so that they can acquire an adequate amount of food. Harsh conditions aren’t good for the birds or their food sources, so they wing it to friendlier climates. But where do they go (besides “south”)? What do they do? Why do they come back?

Hummingbirds are exciting because they are a tropical bird. Ruby–throated Hummingbirds– one of the common species seen in North America– are native to Central America. When the ice age came to an end, they took the opportunity to spread out from the crowded tropics and explore up north.

In the north the hummingbirds found lots of bugs and nectars that were both tasty and nutritious. But winter came, and the food sources decreased. Hummingbirds couldn’t survive, especially if there was an abundance of other hummers around for competition.

Hummingbirds are solitary creatures, and don’t travel or live in groups. This means that hummingbird migration is more difficult to track than other species, which travel in flocks and herds. Hummingbirds travel by themselves, and leave areas at different times in order to avoid too much contact and competition for food with other birds.

Of course, speaking about hummingbirds in general is difficult, because as solitary creatures, individuals have different habits. Some– the ones in the year–round warmth of the tropics– don’t migrate at all.

This year there is already exclamation about hummingbirds migrating earlier than in the past. This is based on a few sightings of solitary birds. This excitement is out of place because there have always early arrivers. Nothing is changing unless there is an early influx of many hummingbirds at once, which has not happened as of yet.

Some hummingbirds don’t find the need to return south because of warm northern areas or an abundance of hummingbird feeders. The number of birds that stay in northern regions is very slim, but it is higher than it was many years ago, so will affect the numbers when it comes to stats such as “earliest hummingbird sighting”.

Though hummingbirds migrate for food, food is also a necessary part of migration preparation. Like bears store up food for hibernation, the thousands of miles of travel requires the hummingbird to pack on some extra pounds. Hummingbirds gain up to 40% of their body weight before they set out, all of which they have lost by the time they arrive at their destination.

Being May, many hummingbirds have already started to migrate. Rate of return varies because they only travel as quickly as weather allows. If you are in a migration path, you might have started to have visitors in March. If you’re at a final destination, then you may have to wait until May or even June. Then you’ll have regular visitors until anywhere from July to September.

Hummingbirds are not a uniform collective, so it is nearly impossible to predict their actions, and there will always be exceptions. If you put your feeders out early, be sure not to fill them too full until you see that the nectar is being taken. Even if it remains full, be sure to change out and clean the feeder regularly so that your mixture does not accumulate bacteria. When they do get to you, you don’t want the travel–weary hummers to get sick.

When does hummingbird season start in your area? Do you have any fun hummingbird experiences? Share in the comments below!

This post was written by Ernie

Ernie Allison loves nature. More specifically, he loves birds and wants to teach others how to appreciate them, too. When he's not sharing his stories with others, he's watching his bird feeder and trying to get decent pictures of the quick critters.

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