The arrival of hummingbirds in spring—seen here on the migration map—marks a milestone for many of us. But, after the summer nesting season, where do they go? Let’s have a look at the fall hummingbird migration and see what these tiny, endearing birds are up to.
If it’s feeding time, this is the best recipe for hummingbird sugar water. And never use red food coloring or dyes!
The Amazing Fall Hummingbird Migration
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Hummingbirds are found in the Americas all the way from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, and the Caribbean as well.
Some hummingbirds (in warmer climates) never migrate. Others make the long journey to summer in parts of the United States and Canada.
Where we live in Ontario, Canada, the first spring arrivals appear in late April and early May. Plenty of hummingbirds may pass through our area and a few will stay and raise their young.
And, while we think of migrations as flocks, hummingbirds travel solo. It’s quite a feat for a tiny bird on its own.
As highly territorial birds, it’s common for hummingbirds to nest far apart but frequent the same gardens where they continually chase each other away.
I once watched a particularly feisty female spent the good part of an afternoon driving out any bees near her nectar supply. It seemed like such a waste of energy for a bird that must continually eat to stay alive, but she was unwilling to share her resources and let the bees know it.
But not everything is an enemy to the hummingbird. This same female was (seemingly) very curious about me and would think nothing of landing on my outstretched hand or sitting on my shoulder to rest. She would also hover close to my face, just looking at me for 30 seconds or so, before going about her business. I have known several hummers like this over the years and it’s unmistakable when that same sweet yet feisty personality reappears in the garden each spring.
Related: Take the Hummingbird Quiz!
Fall Hummingbird Migration
While some hummingbirds in the Western United States do not migrate, most of our ruby-throated hummingbirds will make the long trek south every fall—starting around Labor Day in early September—all the way to Mexico and Central America, where food will be much more abundant over the winter.
For us in southwestern Ontario, the last ones pass by in mid-October, just ahead of first frosts.
For years it was believed that providing nectar (sugar water) feeders may be harmful in autumn, enticing the birds to stay on until it’s too late to head south.
But, not so. In fact, it’s a bonus to have the extra fuel readily available (recipe here) and you can keep your feeders up until you are certain the migrations have all headed south.
Some migrating hummingbirds will be happy with conditions in Texas, Florida and the Gulf Coast and stop there. But most go farther south.
There’s no perfect feeder but this is the best I have found:
The 6,000 km Journey South
It’s quite a journey for the Rufous hummingbirds that start from Alaska—around 4,000 miles or 6,000 kilometers over the course of a few weeks.
It’s not quite as far for the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that we have in the east—and into Western Canada as well.
But it can still be a couple thousand miles for them and they have the Gulf of Mexico to contend with.
Even the shortest path over the Gulf is about 600 miles with no place to rest.
We actually don’t know for sure whether they fly over or around the Gulf, but, either way, it’s an incredible journey.
Young Hummingbirds Know the Way—All on Their Own
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are capable of storing enough fuel—mostly from nectar—to fly that far under the right weather conditions, but conditions in the early fall are often not right.
What’s amazing is that hummingbirds born just a couple of months earlier—and who have never been to Central America—will make the journey on their own. We have much to learn about how they find their way.
Also, despite the folklore, no they do not hitch rides on geese, which was apparently a popular belief many years ago. It’s a fun idea, but no such luck.
So, your wee friends from the feeders over the summer will probably be arriving in Mexico and Central America over the next couple of weeks and enjoying the nectar and insects there, along with warmer temperatures.
Be ready in spring with your feeders filled—this spring migration map is helpful, as some will indeed return to their favorite summer nesting spots once again.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛