5 Fascinating Facts About Fall Hummingbird Migration

When do hummingbirds leave in the fall and why do they leave? We've got the answers to these questions and more hummingbird migration facts.

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 leaving and 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 hummingbird migration facts.

Hummingbird in Fall by Jack57

1. Hummingbird Migration Is Triggered by the Amount of Daylight

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.

Hummingbirds know to leave when days are shorter, and sugar water in feeders can be an important food source as the birds head south. 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.

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 factsCourtesy Lisa Delcour

2. When Do Hummingbirds Leave in Fall?

“How late can hummingbirds stay in the Midwest during fall? We had a female hummingbird visiting us one November,” says Meg Angevine of Dunlap, Illinois.

Hummingbirds typically leave in late summer and early fall. Male hummingbirds leave first, sometimes heading south as early as July. Female hummingbirds and juveniles may leave a few days or even a few weeks later. Hummingbirds do not migrate en masse; each bird 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 creatures.

However, it’s rare for a hummingbird to be as far north as Illinois in late fall. When this happens, it probably reflects some kind of problem in that individual’s instinct to migrate. In fact, by mid-November, a hummer in the Midwest is just as likely to be a wanderer from the West—such as a rufous hummingbird—as a lingering ruby-throat. In these situations, though, feeders aren’t keeping the bird from migrating, they’re just keeping it alive. With luck, the bird’s instincts may cause it to migrate south before winter weather sets in.

Follow these expert tips to attract hummingbirds in winter.

3. A Hummingbird’s Fall Migration Journey 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.

Discover more jaw-dropping facts about hummingbirds.

4. A Hummingbird’s Flight Across the Gulf of Mexico Takes 18 to 24 Hours 

Hummingbirds travel during the day, with the exception of those that must make the perilous Gulf crossing. Once a hummingbird 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.

Attracting Hummingbirds FAQCourtesy Julie Kennedy
The hummingbird behavior shown here is torpor, and is no cause for alarm.

5. Hummingbirds That 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.

Next, learn where hummingbirds sleep at night?

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find he reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.