story and photos by Helen Heizyk
Article courtesy Finger Lakes Museum. Click here for more information.
Hummingbird migration is in full swing and it’s almost time to put out our hummingbird feeders here in the Finger Lakes. The only hummingbird to be expected regularly in New York State is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Each year, hummingbirds embark on two migrations – one north and one south. These journeys, which can span hundreds or thousands of miles, require immense preparation and an enormous amount of energy from these small birds – the smallest in the world.
Their spring migration north, from South America and Mexico up to Canada, is a solitary journey with the goal of getting to their breeding grounds early enough to claim the best feeding territories. With that sort of pressure, this hummingbird migration can begin as early as February in Mexico and finish in mid-May in Canada and Alaska. The migration is spread over a three-month period, which prevents a catastrophic weather event from wiping out the entire species. This means that a few birds will arrive at any location very early, but the bulk of the population will follow later. Once in North America, migration proceeds at an average rate of about 20 miles per day, generally following the earliest blooming of flowers hummingbirds prefer.
I try to get my nectar feeders out by May 1st because year after year there are a couple of hummingbirds that announce their return by hovering right outside our dining room window as if to say ‘Hello! We’re back!’. As it turns out banding studies show that each bird tends to return every year to the same place it hatched, even visiting the same feeders. How fun is that!
You can attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to your backyard by putting out special hummingbird feeders or by planting tubular flowers. In your feeders use one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water. It’s not necessary to boil the water though I do heat it to help the sugar dissolve faster. Store unused syrup in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. You do need to change your feeder’s nectar on a regular basis, even if it looks like it hasn’t been touched. During hot weather, change it every two days. In milder weather, once a week is fine.
Hummingbirds are carnivores (nectar is just the fuel to power their flycatching activity) and depend on insects that are not abundant in subfreezing weather, so they migrate back “home” to Central America in the winter or risk starvation. Some adult males start migrating south as early as mid-July, but the peak of southward migration for this species is late August and early September. By mid-September, essentially all of the Ruby-throated at our feeders are migrating through from farther north, and not the same individuals we saw in the summer. In fact, hummingbirds migrate south at the time of greatest food abundance. When the bird is fat enough, it migrates. It’s not necessary to take down your feeders to force hummingbirds to leave, the ones stopping by in September are already migrating anyway. If you remove your feeder, birds will just feed elsewhere, but may not bother to return to your yard the next year. It is recommended that you continue to maintain feeders until freezing becomes a problem.
Did you know that you can follow the hummingbird migration and even report your own first of year sighting? Just click on one or both of these great interactive migration websites and zoom in to the northeast to see where the latest hummingbird sightings have been reported. Happy birding!
Some fun hummingbird facts
- To protect themselves, some species of hummingbirds build their nests near hawks nest. The hawks keep hummingbird predators like squirrels and jays away from the nest, while ignoring the hummers themselves (since they’re too small to be a worthy meal for the raptor).
- Hummingbird tongues act as small pumps that consume nectar at a rate of approximately 15 licks per second.
- The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird in North America that breeds east of the Great Plains.
- Hummingbirds are the smallest migrating bird. They don’t migrate in flocks like other species, and they typically travel alone for up to 500 miles at a time.
- The name, hummingbird, comes from the humming noise their wings make as they beat so fast.
- Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backward.
- Hummingbirds have no sense of smell. While they can’t sniff out feeders, they do have good color vision. Some birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird prefer orange or red flowers.
- The average weight of a hummingbird is less than a nickel.
- Their tiny legs are only used for perching and moving sideways while perched. They can’t walk or hop.
- The average number of eggs laid by female hummingbirds is only two. These eggs have been found in nests smaller than a half dollar and compare in size to a jellybean or a coffee bean.
- A flock of hummingbirds can be referred to as a bouquet, a glittering, a hover, a shimmer, or a tune.
- There are over 330 species of hummingbirds in North and South America.
The map above shows the report of migration from 4/15/2020.