Brian L. Sullivan
Attract hummingbirds to your backyard with plants that have red or orange flowers.
Without a doubt, hummingbirds rank as one of the most spectacular wonders of the avian world. They are well appreciated for their tiny size, iridescent plumages and flying abilities — and man, can they fly… even backwards!
Worldwide, many hummingbird species live their lives in quite small regions, isolated by topography. This isolation has led to the great variation we see in the tropics, where this group reaches its highest diversity.
Interestingly, the more northerly hummingbird species have developed amazing behaviors. They cover long distances nonstop, their migration differs from most other North American passerines, and the secrets of some of their movements are just now being discovered.
Relatively few hummingbird species breed in North America compared with tropical regions of the New World, and most North American breeders depart that region for the winter. Hummingbirds rely on a combination of nectar and insects for food, and they can’t handle cold temperatures very well.
The northern summer, however, is warm and full of flowers and bugs. Several species have evolved to take advantage of these ephemeral resources, a good ex-ample being Rufous Hummingbird. It breeds as far north as south-central Alaska, and it winters mainly in southwestern Mexico. It ranges farther north than any other hummingbird species and can take advantage of the explosion of resources available in the spring and early summer throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Our hardiest hummingbird, however, is Anna’s Hummingbird, which is largely resident in the extreme West. Anna’s regularly endures below-freezing temperatures in fall and winter, and in Washington, it makes a living in the milder coastal regions.
The Anna's hummingbird is a hardy bird that resides on the Pacific coast and can endure below-freezing temperatures.
There are also complicated movements within Anna’s year-round range that require further study. Birds might move from lower-elevation regions in winter to higher-elevation areas during spring and summer. These movements likely take place in many tropical species, too, and there is certainly a lot to be learned about how ostensibly resident hummingbird species take advantage of food resources at the local level.
Unsurprisingly, hummingbird migration closely relates to available food supplies, and these patterns are especially noticeable in the West. In early spring, hummingbirds move north along the coast and foothills where native plants are in full bloom and temperatures are moderate. During fall migration, hummingbirds move south largely through the mountains, where high-elevation meadows that were snow-covered until July are now in full bloom and provide ample foraging resources.
The search for available food spurs many species to travel extremely long distances, including hummingbirds. The notion of a bird that weighs just a few grams flying nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico might seem preposterous, yet Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make this journey each spring and fall. These birds pack on an enormous amount of fat before their journeys, in some cases nearly doubling their body weight prior to migration. This is indeed a remarkable feat, but recent migration studies show that many long-distance travelers have this ability, including shorebirds and warblers. Nonetheless, it’s still a shock to scan the wave tops for seabirds and instead see hummingbirds flying toward land like bullets skimming over the ocean, having just covered nearly 500 miles nonstop!
It might surprise many birders to learn that hummingbirds are among our earliest spring migrants. In California, Allen’s Hummingbird arrives in late January, when the last of the hardy northern seabirds are still moving south.
Spring migration is generally early for all hummingbird species, but it closely follows the availability of food sources. In the eastern United States, where only Ruby-throated Hummingbirds breed, migration timing is much earlier in the South, with birds arriving on the Gulf Coast in March and expanding north through late April.
Fall migration is likewise early compared with most migrant North American birds. Adult male Allen’s Hummingbirds are nearly impossible to find in northern California by late June, the majority having left for the wintering grounds in Mexico, and by late August, the juveniles have moved south.
In general, adult male hummingbirds arrive first in spring and depart first in fall, followed by adult females and then juveniles. By late fall, any migrant hummingbird is unusual and worthy of further scrutiny, especially in the East and the Southeast.
In recent years, our knowledge of hummingbird migration patterns has increased, no doubt due to more interest by observers as well as the increase in the number of birders offering hummingbird feeders into the fall. What has been revealed is a surprisingly regular pattern of western hummingbirds in the East and the Southeast during late fall, especially Rufous Hummingbirds, which now occasionally overwinter in the Southeast at feeders during mild winters.
Unsurprisingly, hummingbird migration closely relates to available food supplies, and these patterns are especially noticeable in the West.
Vagrants from west to east, and from east to west, aren’t the only story when it comes to hummingbird rarities. Increasingly, tropical species appear at feeders in far-flung places. Such oddities as Green Violet-eared Hummingbird and Green-breasted Mango Hummingbird are found with increasing frequency.
It’s no longer safe to assume that any hummingbird in the East is a Ruby-throated (though most are!). Summer through late fall are particularly interesting times for vagrant hummingbirds, so keep a close eye on your sugar-water feeder for anything that looks different.
Want to learn more about hummingbirds?
When To Set Out Hummingbird Feeders
5-Step Stimulus Plan for Hummingbirds
Excerpt from WildBird May/June 2012 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.