Five Fascinating Facts About… Fall Hummingbird Migration

Jill Staake

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 in Fall by Jack57

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.

Hummingbird Frenzy by Janet King

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.

Hummingbird in Torpor by Harvey West

Learn more about hummingbirds in winter on our website by clicking here.

 

  1. says

    While watching my little friends going after our late blooming Cardinal trumpet vine, I noticed that only the females are here to feed on my flowers and feeders. Thank you for your article on the males leaving earlier. I miss them already! Our temperatures here in almost coastal South Jersey have been in the 40′s for two nights already. Too cold for me and definitely too cold for my hummers. And so God Speed my little friends and have a safe roundtrip to return to our yard in 2014 for our daily ‘air shows’ and your freshly made nectar.

  2. Rick says

    I am not necessarily a bird watcher, but my wife is a fanatic about hummingbirds. We have our railings on our deck covered with morning glories and those little rascals are all over it. There are hundreds of big flowers and I watch them going from flower to flower. I counted 5 at one time today. There were more on the other side, but I was getting confused. Those little dudes move fast! I live in northern Illinois and have never seen that many in my life. They have been hanging around for a week now. Kinda neat to watch em do their thing. It amazes me at how far they travel. Pretty cool.

  3. Bev says

    We live in Southwest Iowa. There were lots of Hummingbirds at the feeder during the first two weeks of September. Then during the third week, there were only about four or five here. During the last week, there was only two left and about Sept. 26th or 27th, they took off. One or two migrators came by the next day and then left. I still have my feeders up for any travelers that may come past. I believe that there are several that come every year.

  4. Claudia says

    I had to replace my feeder and hardly had any hummingbirds visiting-then realised they are leaving for for the warmer weather! They’ll enjoy the new feeder next spring and my family and I will enjoy seeing them:)

  5. pete bragg says

    the reason we leave the feeders up until cold weathers is in full tilt is THE BIRD THAT ARE WEAK OR OLD ARE SLOWER AND NEED TO EAT . IN MY AREA WV. DEPARTURE IS WEEK OF THE 16 OF SEPT . IVE SEEN THEM AS LATE AS 1 OCT . SO KEEP THE FEEDERS UP UNTIL ////////.

  6. Mary says

    I don’t want to wish time away, especially for our long awaited ‘cool down’. But, we are patiently waiting for January to see if our Calliope ‘Cal’ hummingbird returns. Last year we had him banded. A most rewarding experience.

    • Mary Ann Hanzok says

      I think You might live in My area…..Heard of that Hummer in Jan. and that it was banded…wouldn’t it be great to see Him again!

  7. Jane says

    It is always great to have the hummingbirds
    return to OHIO and always sad to see them
    leave. They are such fascinating little
    birds and such fun to watch. Always look
    forward to the return of the hummingbirds
    in the Spring.

  8. says

    When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area we had hummers year round. Now i live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and was very surprised to see a few hummers at my feeders during the winter. I now leave my feeders up year round, but my use less nectar to reduce the possibility of spoilage. LF

  9. says

    Thanks for the reminder. We’ve had a couple here in Fredericksburg, TX this summer. your article was a good reminder to make more nectar and give the guys a good feed before their long trek to Mexico and beyond. The females raise the babies alone then join the group down south. We love Hummers.

  10. Nancy Christiansen says

    I live in the desert outside Tucson, Az. I’ve been out here and feeding the hummers for 10 years. We have hummers all year long esp. Costas hummers.
    A few times their nectar has been frozen, early in the a.m., and I’ve had to run water on the feeders to melt them.

  11. says

    What I am worried about is that while the hummers are in torpor, hanging from a branch or feeder, they will get eaten by predators. Even thought we have fences all around our yard, that does not keep out the cats that some neighbors refuse to keep inside. Can I just move the entire branch or feeder inside our breezeway to keep the hummers safe until they wake?

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