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So, you figured it out. I am talking about a hummingbird, seventeen species of which are known to have nested in the United States. While all hummingbirds that visit North America migrate to one degree or another, several of them travel distances that are truly amazing. If you live in the east you are probably most familiar with the Ruby-throated hummingbird and if you live in the west, you will likely be visited by the Black-chinned variety. Every spring they appear and every fall they disappear.

 

Why do they migrate? Hummingbirds migrate to exploit brief windows of opportunity in habitats that cannot support a year-round population. So this generally means flying north in the spring and south in the fall. Strong evidence exists that hummingbirds are very aware of the photoperiod (the amount of daylight versus darkness) and this triggers their migration. Other scientists believe that as the flower and insect populations bloom in the spring and decline in the fall, the birds follow the food chain. So the hummingbirds migrate north to take advantage of the bounty of blooms and insects that spring brings to North America. This provides the food and energy required for courtship, mating, nesting and raising their young so they are ready for the southward migration in the fall.

 

The spring migration begins in February with sightings of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds returning to all of the lower gulf states and the black-chinned variety returning to Mexico border states. Those who will be returning to the northern states begin their migration later, giving flowers a chance to bloom and insects to hatch before they return, usually to the same gardens and feeders, that they left the previous fall.

 

Where do they go? This is where it gets really interesting. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds wintering in Central America take the most direct route available while traveling north, up the Yucatan Peninsula and across the nearly 500 mile wide Gulf of Mexico! After a brief rest they continue their journey as far north as the southern portions of the eastern Canadian provinces and as far west as Texas.

 

In the west, the Black-chinned Hummingbird is performing a similar trek from Central America, settling all along the path to southern British Columbia.

 

During the spring and summer months the hummingbirds find plenty of food throughout their range. As fall approaches and the days begin to shorten in August the hummingbirds go into eating overdrive, gaining between 25% and 40% body weight, in preparation for their long migration south. Soon they all begin to head south, individually, flying just above the treetops, stopping frequently for food along the way. The Black-chinned making their long journey back to Central America following their natural instinct and also years of experience refines the routes they follow. The Ruby-throated southward migration is much more perilous as most will eventually make their way back across the Gulf of Mexico, many for the first time. As they make their way to the Gulf of Mexico, they average 20 to 25 miles per day, following the Mississippi Flyway or the Appalachian chain southward. Once they arrive at the coast they will rest and refuel and then make a single non-stop, 20 hour flight of approximately 500 miles, across the Gulf of Mexico to Panama. Sailors and fishermen in the gulf have reported seeing them flying low over the water, 200 miles from land. The flight path they take will be the same one they used on their first trip.

 

 

How can you help? A hummingbird feeder in your backyard can literally mean the difference between life and death to these birds. Living on the edge of existence, as they do, hummingbirds who do survive their first year have an average lifespan of three to four years, most of it spent in search of food.When the hummingbirds return to your backyard they will be very hungry. A well designed feeder filled with the appropriate nectar will have these little jewel-like creatures buzzing around your head, even landing on your hand, in appreciation. Hummingbird feeders are easier to maintain and much less expensive than seed feeders. A cup of sugar, some water, and you are in business.

 

 

The second part of this article will deal in detail with flower gardens and hummingbird feeders.