Do you know that one of the species of hummingbirds, the bee hummingbird, is the smallest bird in the world? I just knew the fact while doing a little research on – where do hummingbirds go in the winter?
Hummingbirds are the men’s best backyard companions, flitting around thousands of flowers and a lot of bird feeders throughout the summer. But, when the winter arrives and temperatures begin to drop, where do these daintiest of birds actually go?
Here’s what I found!
Every winter, North American hummingbirds go to southern regions, especially Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central American countries. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, for example, can continuously fly up to 5 hundred miles to cross the Gulf of Mexico, from the areas of the coast between central Florida and southern Texas to Yucatan Peninsula.
After a short relaxation and refreshment, hummingbirds return to northward, their breeding areas, at a rate of approximately 20 miles per day, finishing the trip to the northern USA and southern Canada by late May.
The best part is that hummingbirds don’t live in flocks. And even, they accomplish the entire migration process, going to the south and coming back to their real habitats alone.
That’s why you don’t often see hummingbirds around you in winter months. But, some hummingbirds, like Anna’s Hummingbird, stay in the southeast and west coast in milder climates, and they don’t go farther south.
Now, let’s see why these tiniest birds leave in the winters and how their different species migrate to the south.
Why Do Hummingbirds Leave in the Winter?
In a word, hummingbirds leave in the winter due to the harsh winter weather.
You’re probably wondering why winter temperatures are quite challenging for North American hummingbirds.
In fact, hummingbirds are carnivores, and so they largely depend on insects. However, they eat nectar just as the fuel to power their flycatching activity–the highest of an endothermic animal on Earth.
But, when wintertime comes and days are becoming cold and frozen, they don’t find enough insects and nectar-bearing flowering plants in this subfreezing weather.
For your information, hummingbirds constantly need to eat abundant nectar and insects. Every day, they consume pure sugar at an amount of about half their body weight to ensure their quick-winged flight and restful perching (hummingbirds spend about 75% of their time for perching and digesting).
As enough food isn’t available for hummingbirds in winter, and they’re likely to die of starvation and cold, why won’t they migrate to warmer countries at that time?
They most do!
Their small bodies cannot resist intense cold, and therefore they go to warmer regions where they can find insects and flowers all over the winter season.
Even if many dedicated birders offer hummingbirds supplemental foods in feeders, they still require natural food sources. So, they have to seek the areas where their food is abundant.
Where Do Hummingbirds Go in the Winter?
As I already stated, most North American hummingbirds go to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America to overwinter, to find suitable food and shelter in winter months.
For instance, ruby-throated hummingbirds go to southern Florida, southern Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, and western Panama accordingly.
Other hummingbirds fly along the Gulf Coast from Texas through the Florida panhandle and to central and western Mexico, and Central America.
But, overwintering hummingbirds are becoming increasingly available in the milder climates of the Southeast and West Coast regions of the USA these days.
This is because these birds don’t always travel too far, and therefore, they have opted not to finish their migration trips.
Why don’t these hummingbirds go farther south?
In my opinion, they move to the southeast and west coast regions of the USA to make sure that they remain close enough to their breeding locations and can quickly return whenever needed.
Now, you’ve got that each hummingbird species has its migration strategy. So, let’s see what hummingbird migration basics are and several migration strategies of different hummingbirds.
What are the Hummingbird Migration Basics?
In the winter season, hummingbirds head as far as south to find insects, flowers, and other natural food sources. Many of them start the trip during late summer and fall.
When winter is likely to finish, they come back to northward (the breeding grounds in Canada and the USA), where they find abundant food supplies again.
Migrations of Different Hummingbirds
As hummingbirds have many species, and each of the species has its migration strategy, we should know the migration processes of some of the common ones.
That’s why I’m now going to talk about the migrations of several hummingbirds.
#01. Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the most common hummingbirds in eastern North America. They weigh a little more than a penny but can travel up to five hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico in a day.
These hummingbirds start their migrations as early as mid-July, but some of them begin the trip in late August or early September. And you know that most of them go to southern Mexico and Central America to spend the winter.
However, some of them stay in the southern United States along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts because they’re migrants from Canada and have already flown several thousand miles.
#02. Rufous Hummingbirds
The Rufous hummingbirds are only three-inch-long, but they can make the longest migration trips, from Alaska to Mexico (roughly equal to 3,900 miles).
The migration route of these birds forms a clockwise loop. The hummingbirds travel south, especially southern Mexico, through the Rocky Mountains as early as July.
When the early spring comes, they leave the Mexican wintering grounds and arrive in Canada and Washington State through the Pacific Coast by May.
#03. Black-Chinned Hummingbirds
During the summer, Black-Chinned hummingbirds are available in the western United States. These hummingbird species are quite adaptable, and so they’re available in even urban areas. This is why the population of these birds is increasing.
When it comes to migrating in the winter, many adults move to feast on mountain flowers after breeding.
In fact, these birds usually head south in the late fall and go to western Mexico to overwinter, but some of them stay along the Gulf Coast.
#04. Costa’s Hummingbirds
In the southwestern regions of the United States, you’ll find these beautiful hummingbirds. They have a wide range of breeding areas, including California, Arizona, Baja, and Western Mexico.
When it comes to migration, these hummingbirds fly to the south as far as possible, but not too distant places. Most of them stay in less cold areas in the United States, developing resistance into their bodies to cope with winter.
#05. Buff-Bellied Hummingbirds
Buff-Bellied hummingbirds are such species that you find in southern Texas throughout the year. During the winter months, these hummingbirds are likely to widen their range through migration.
At that time, these birds fly to as far as Mississippi and other eastern regions of the United States through the Gulf Coast. They usually don’t cross the border of the USA because they can cope with the climates of southern areas.
#06. Allen’s Hummingbirds
These hummingbirds leave their wintering grounds in early December to make sure that they arrive along the coasts of California and Oregon in January to enjoy the region’s winter wildflowers.
FYI, Allen’s Hummingbirds have two subspecies, and each of them has its wintering destination. One species goes to central Mexico to find food and shelter, while the other stays in southern California to overwinter.
#07. Anna’s Hummingbirds
Compared to most hummingbirds, Anna’s Hummingbirds usually don’t migrate to the south, but sometimes go short distances to find additional food sources.
These days, Anna’s Hummingbirds occupy a large area, from Southern Canada to northern Mexico. But, in the early 20th century, the bird’s breeding range was limited, including only southern California, Mexico, and Baja.
Along the West Coast, there are a lot of exotic flowering trees available. These trees provide nesting opportunities and nectar supplies to Anna’s Hummingbirds, and so their population is now growing.
So, Not All Hummingbirds Leave in the Winter
We already know that hummingbirds come in a lot of species. And the fact is that all hummingbird species don’t migrate in the winter.
But, why do some species stay in colder weather? There are several reasons that allow hummingbirds to stay in the area.
Backyard Hummingbird Feeders
North American people usually contribute to steady food supplies in backyard hummingbird feeders throughout the entire year. These feeders allow many hummingbirds not to migrate to the south in winter.
Another reason is climate change that has altered ecosystems. Due to climate change, many insects breed throughout the year, and flowering plants blossom through winter.
Milder Weather Regions
In some areas in North America, winter weather is milder. That’s why food and shelter can be found all year. So, hummingbirds can stay in these areas during the entire winter season.
The regions include-
- The Pacific Coast
- Along the Texas coast
- Vancouver Island
- Southwestern and central Arizona
- Southern Florida
- Southern British Columbia
According to the studies of Adam Hadley, an ecologist in Oregon State, hummingbirds that stay in north or tend to migrate north during the winter possess an energy-conservation mode that decreases their body temperatures from 107 to 48 degrees.
This is called torpor!
Torpor is the same as hibernation, which significantly works at night. When the mode is active, the metabolic and heart rate of a hummingbird drop dramatically, but it can survive extended periods without taking much food.
For instance, a blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate usually plummets from 1,260 beats per minute to 50 to 180 beats per minute during torpor. The body temperature can drop from 104°F (40°C) to 65°F (18°C) in this process.
This is why hummingbirds can survive in the winter, staying in colder regions.
How to Help Overwintering Hummingbirds
If we encounter such hummingbirds that don’t head south, we should help them through cold snaps as much as we can.
Besides, if we know that hummingbirds may come in our locality in winter months, we should be offering them some food as much as we can before they arrive.
You might be thinking the same. And that’s why I’m now going to share you with a few tips about how you can help overwintering hummingbirds.
Tip – 1: Ensure a Well-Maintained Hummingbird Feeder
Make sure that you maintain at least a hummingbird feeder in your backyard so that overwintering hummingbirds can receive supplemental energy throughout the year, especially in harsh winter weather. This could be the difference between life and death and will provide more calories to hummingbirds to combat the extreme cold.
As hummingbirds sleep at night, you should bring the feeder inside overnight to keep it away from freezing. You can also use small lights to keep the nectar hot to make sure that the nectar doesn’t clog feeding ports.
Tip – 2: Plant Nectar-Rich Flowers in Your Backyard
If you plant nectar-producing flowers in your backyard or around your house, you’ll be able to help hummingbirds to get natural energy sources even in harsh winter. In my opinion, you should choose plants that bloom orange or red flowers. This is because these colors attract hummingbirds the most.
Tip – 3: Learn How to Make Nectar at Home
If planting nectar-rich flowers is a hard nut to crack for you, then you can learn how to make nectar at home. To make supplementary nectar, you have to use only pure water and refined white sugar. Here’s the recipe.
Tip – 4: Make a Nest for Overwintering Hummingbirds
You can help these tiny fliers by providing them with a nest that can protect them from heavy downpours. You’ll find a lot of natural ways to make a bird nest. But, make sure that the nest is in a safe place and far away from predators.
Tip – 5: Encourage Hummingbirds to Take Shelter in Tree Cavities
If you don’t make a nest for hummingbirds, you can plant some trees and a few shrubs so that hummingbirds can take shelter tree cavities. When it comes to choosing the plants, I recommend you select native plants because these birds are quite familiar with them.
Tip – 6: Provide Insects to Overwintering Hummingbirds
You may already know that hummingbirds love to eat insects. So, you shouldn’t apply insecticides to your plants to eliminate the bugs. Besides, you can leave spider webs so that small flies, gnats, and other insects can be trapped, and hummingbirds can eat them.
Some Myths about Hummingbird Migration
Hummingbirds are excellent birds that are familiar to many backyard birders. This is why there are many myths among people about these tiny creatures.
Those myths are related to their migration – how do these birds travel thousands of miles every year? How can they return to the same favorite breeding areas year after year?
Let’s see what people crazily think about hummingbird migration.
Myth – 1: Each Hummingbird Migrates in Fall and Spring
There are more than 300 hummingbird species in the world, but most of them don’t migrate in fall and spring.
The majority of species live in rich tropical regions that can support the population of these birds all-year-round. As a result, they don’t need to migrate anywhere else.
Even in Canada and the United States, not all hummingbirds head more temperate areas. Anna’s hummingbirds, for example, never migrate at all, and in fact, they live in some southwestern regions of the United States, including southwestern Arizona, along the Pacific Coast, and British Columbia.
Myth – 2: All Hummingbirds Migrate to South America in Winter
The fact is that not all hummingbirds spend winter months in South America, but they migrate to a variety of destinations.
Some of them migrate to Mexico or Central America, while many North American hummingbirds head different Caribbean islands. You’ll find some hummingbirds that stay in the United States in harsh winter.
For example, Ruby-throated hummingbirds often spend winter months along the Gulf Coast or in southern Florida. They’re increasingly becoming more available hummingbirds all over the southeastern United States in the winter season.
Myth – 3: Feeding Hummingbirds Stops Their Migration
You won’t find any scientific evidence that keeping hummingbird feeders out prevents them from migrating in late fall. In fact, those feeders help hummingbirds to fuel up their body for further journeys.
However, you should keep hummingbird feeders out in the late fall. Otherwise, hummingbirds won’t get enough energy for their long flight and would starve before reaching their overwintering regions.
Myth – 4: Hummingbirds Migrate By Clinging to the Backs of Larger Birds
The fact is that hummingbirds can migrate to south regions without the help of other birds. Even, they complete their migration alone, not in flocks.
However, you’ll find some other birds that cling to large birds, such as Canada Geese. But, when it comes to hummingbirds, you won’t see this kind of species.
Myth – 5: Hummingbirds Hibernate in Mud While Not Migrating
This is the weirdest myth about migrations of hummingbirds because they don’t actually hibernate but go into torpor mode.
You already know what torpor is. This is a type of overnight semi-hibernation that decreases heart rate, body temperature up to 50 degrees, respiration, and metabolism accordingly.
The torpor mode helps hummingbirds conserve energy on a cold night to make a journey in the next morning.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1: How do hummingbirds fly south for the winter?
Answer: Hummingbirds are such bird species that don’t live and migrate in flocks. As there are a variety of hummingbird species, their migration process will be different. For example, Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate to Mexico and Central America by traveling 500 miles a day over the Gulf of Mexico.
Q2: Do hummingbirds die in the winter?
Answer: If enough food sources are not found in winter, hummingbirds that cannot cope with the harsh winter may die of starvation and cold.
Q3: Do hummingbirds come back to the same feeder every year?
Answer: Most hummingbirds can come back to the same feeder or garden year after year. Most surprisingly, they often return to the same spot and arrive on the same date.
Most hummingbirds migrate to the south, while some of the species head northward. Even, some of them never migrate at all, staying in Canada and the United States. So, the overall migration process largely depends on different species.
Now that you know where do hummingbirds go in the winter, you can take necessary steps to help those hummingbirds that stay in your backyard in winter months. To serve them well, you should learn how to prepare nectar at home.