The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most popular birds to feed and watch in the United States. Many people are mesmerized by their colorful plumage, acrobatic flying, and diminutive size. It is the predominant hummingbird seen in the eastern half of the United States and Canada. Typically, people never see any of the other 15 species of hummingbirds outside of the West Coast. This article takes a brief look at the migration of the ruby-throated hummingbird and when you can expect to see them at your feeder.
Ruby-throated hummingbird migration most likely originated from the lack of suitable food during the winter months. While that may not sound surprising, many people would be incorrect in thinking that the lack of blooming flowers in the winter causes the hummingbirds to migrate south. The real reason is lack of insects! Nectar only makes up about fifty percent of a hummingbird's diet; it gives them the energy to catch the small insects that provide them with the protein they need to survive. Since many of the insects they depend on are not available in subfreezing temperatures, they migrate to Central and South America during North America's fall and winter months.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin their northward migration between late February and mid-May. Unlike many migratory birds, the ruby-throated hummingbird does not travel in flocks. It is a solitary bird, with the exception of breeding and bearing young; however, it has been seen traveling with other types of birds. This may be the source of the popular myth that hummingbirds travel on the backs of Canadian geese during migration. While that is untrue, the average hummingbird does travel about 20 miles per day by itself on its northward migration. Their flight path tends to follow the availability of flowering plants, and they typically return to a location relatively close to their birthplace. Each hummingbird has its own internal schedule and map, so individual arrivals will vary significantly. Most will arrive back between the months of April and May. See the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds 2002 Migration Map.
Because of the varied arrival schedules, it is best to have your feeder out in early spring. If a hummingbird returns and there is no available nectar, it may permanently move to a different area in search of more readily available food. It is also important to keep the feeder full during their stay, as they consume about half of their body weight in nectar every day and will quickly seek out new sources of nectar if none is close by. Nectar mix can be purchased or made by simply dissolving 1 part sugar into 4 parts boiling water. The nectar in the feeder should be changed every 3-4 days, and should always be clean and clear. If the nectar is cloudy, moldy, or contaminated by insects or dirt, it should be changed as soon as possible.
Although there are many types of feeders available, most fall into two categories: bottle- type and dish-type. Bottle-type feeders are simply a bottle turned upside down, which sends the nectar into a small dish or tube. If you are using a bottle feeder with a tube, it is important that you fill the bottle completely when refilling. If only filled partially, it will not be able to create the vacuum that prevents the nectar from dripping out of the tube. Bottle-type feeders come in all shapes and sizes, from a soda bottle turned upside down to colorful hand-blown glass works of art. A dish-type feeder is basically a covered dish with feeding ports built into the cover. While usually not as ornate as some bottle-type feeders, dish-type feeders can typically feed more birds at one time and seldom have any issues with dripping. Dish-type feeders often have other useful features, such as nectar guards and insect moats built into the design. These features can prevent or discourage bees, wasps, ants, and other insects from using the feeder.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds will start their southward migration as early as mid-July, though most will leave between late August and late September. Many people will leave their feeders out through late fall and early winter, as they may have many visitors that will stop by their feeders to refuel before continuing their journey. If you are in need of a new hummingbird feeder, visit our Hummingbird Feeder department to view our complete selection. We also offer hummingbird nectar mix and several books about hummingbirds. Special thanks to Lanny Chambers at www.hummingbirds.net for information about hummingbird migration and the migration map used for this article.