It’s that bittersweet time of year when northern folks say goodbye to the hummingbirds they’ve watched all summer. It’s time for fall migration, and hummingbirds across the country are heading south. Some Rufous hummingbirds may linger in southern Texas or Florida into the winter months, but most won’t risk the possibility of cold weather and instead will move on. (The exception to this are Anna’s Hummingbirds, which remain in coastal California year-round.) Here are some cool facts to know about this autumn journey. (Oh, and no – they don’t make the journey on the backs of geese. This legend is amusing, but not the least bit true!)
Hummingbird migration is triggered by the amount of daylight, not the amount of available food. Some folks worry that leaving their feeders up will cause hummingbirds to remain in the area and freeze to death in the winter. This is completely false. In fact, taking down your hummingbird feeders too soon can be a problem for birds in areas where wildflowers no longer dominate the landscape. Leave your feeders up and full for two weeks after you see your last hummingbird visitor to ensure they have the sustenance they need to make the long journey ahead.
Male hummingbirds leave first, and females and juveniles follow. This may be a few days or even a few weeks later. Hummingbirds do not migrate en masse; each undertakes the journey on its own. This allows them to space out their travels to take best advantage of available food. Hummingbirds are too small to benefit from traveling in each other’s wake like larger birds, so individual journeys work best for these small creatures.
A hummingbird’s fall journey south takes approximately two weeks. This varies, of course, depending on weather and other factors. The birds are headed for Mexico and South America, with some species heading as far south as Panama. They are capable of flying at speeds up to 35 miles an hour, and could make the journey in as little as a week, but most stop to rest and all stop to feed along the way. During the fall migration months, you should notice an increased number of visitors at your feeders during warm dry weather, but don’t expect them to linger – they usually spend no more than a day in one area.
A hummingbird’s flight across Gulf of Mexico takes 18 – 24 hours of nonstop flying. Hummingbirds travel during the day, with the exception of those that must make the perilous gulf crossing. Once a bird leaves shore, it must continue the journey until it finds dry ground again. That means the birds must fly for at least 18 hours, and sometimes longer if the weather is bad. Folks who live along the northern Gulf Coast can help hummingbirds prepare for arduous journey by providing lots of nectar flowers and sugar-water feeders. (Click here for late-summer and fall nectar flower ideas.)
Hummingbirds who encounter cold weather experience torpor. Hummingbirds migrate because they are unable to withstand freezing temperatures for extended periods of time. They have an amazing adaption to help them survive the unexpected, though. If cold weather sets in early, or a belated lingerer faces an unexpected cold spell, hummingbird bodies will essentially shut down all non-essential functions (including breathing for a short time). They drop their body temperatures by up to 50 degrees, and slow their heartbeats to almost nothing. When warmer temperatures return, they “wake up” in about an hour or so and continue their journey. It can be a little alarming to see a hummingbird in torpor, since they often hang upside-down from a tree or even a feeder. Don’t disturb hummingbirds you find exhibiting this behavior; they’ll be just fine once the weather warms up.