hummingbirds, the original 'snowbirds'

male ruby-throated hummingbird

male ruby-throated hummingbird

hummingbirds, the original 'snowbirds'

Get the feeders ready, it’s almost time for the return of our favorite tiny migrant - the Ruby-throated hummingbird! Here on the Cape they typically arrive the third week of April, after completing their amazingly long over-water journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Why would such a small, solitary bird make such an arduous trip? The answer lies in genetics. They are essentially tropical birds who have expanded their feeding and breeding range as the ice sheets retreated further north. They are also carnivores, depending on insects to survive (the nectar we and our gardens provide is the fuel for their hunting expeditions). Therefore, they need to migrate to a warmer climate (Central America) in winter in order to avoid starvation. A few small pockets remain in North America, gathered in the Gulf Coast and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but the vast majority make the trip, returning to the same location each winter.

Realizing that they weigh just a tenth of an ounce, their migration is simply astonishing, with most crossing the 500 mile over-water span of the Gulf of Mexico in one non-stop 18-22 hour flight. From a species-preservation standpoint they are also extremely intelligent, with the males beginning the migration 10 days before the females and the entire migration event spread out over a three month period in order to reduce the chance that bad weather would cause an elimination of most of the species. 

Once in North America the hummingbirds follow the wave of blooming flowers up the continent, reaching their farthest reaches - Canada - by late May. Studies have shown that hummingbirds will return to the same location where they were hatched, and even frequent the same feeders if they are available. The Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the most common variety of hummingbird here on the Cape, but we have also been known to host Rufous hummingbirds and even a wayward Broad-billed hummingbird has been spotted by a keen bird-watcher. To encourage hummingbirds to visit your garden, it is helpful to include flowering plants which they enjoy, such as monarda, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, foxglove, delphinium, cardinal flower, lantana, butterfly bush, and mimosa trees. Notice not all of these selections are red - while the color red does attract hummingbirds it is the quantity and quality of nectar produced by the plant which makes it a favorite stop. For your feeders a simple solution of one part sugar to four parts water, boiled for one minute, is best. The red dyes in some prepared nectars are unnecessary and potentially harmful. It’s also important to remember to keep your feeder clean, mold growth from a sugar solution left too long in the feeder can also be harmful to our visiting friends. 

Just as our summer vacations must come to an end, so does the time for the visiting hummingbird. Like the human “snowbirds” that migrate between the Cape and Florida each year, come mid-August the hummingbirds begin their southward migration once again, triggered by the shortening of the days. Though your “regulars” may leave earlier, you may still see migrating hummingbirds at your feeder as they make their way from further north. It’s advised to keep the feeders up until the first frost, just to make sure everyone has the fuel to make the trip. 

To view an online map of the Ruby-throated hummingbird migration for this year visit: http://www.hummingbirds.net/map.html