Where Do Hummingbirds Go For Winter?

Where have all the hummers gone?

They were just here, flitting madly about the yard, fighting over the feeder, snuggling up to a pretty flower and astonishing us with their incredible prowess. Now, as though “beamed up” to the starship, you can’t find them anywhere.

Photographs courtesy of Lori R. Bramble.

They’re on their way to Mexico. The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds we know and love (the only ones that live around here) spend their winters in warm Mexico, sometimes as far south as Panama.

That’s a long, long way from here. But hummers are up to the journey. Hummingbirds generally leave their summer homes well before all the food has run out. This assures them that there will be adequate forage for the long journey. You may still see hummers about after your summer friends have gone; they most likely are those dropping by on their own journey from further north (Ruby Throated Hummingbirds can be making their way south all the way from Canada).

If you have a feeder, keep it full and clean for these busy birds. They actually need that sugar more during their migration than they do during summer. These tiny birds need to store up enough energy to fly across the Gulf of Mexico, a feat that takes roughly 26 hours. Some fly southwest and skip the journey across the gulf, but many just take off from Florida and do it in one long go. Keep your feeder clean and full for at least two weeks after you’ve seen the last little bird; remember they might be visiting when you don’t see them, and they really need the boost. And please, keep that feeder clean. Sugar ferments. That’s bad news for a little bird. It’s easy; just wash and rinse the feeder thoroughly each time you fill it.

Their migration is just part of this bird’s incredible lifestyle.

While we are familiar with hummingbirds visiting our flowers and feeders, they spend most of their feeding time chasing down insects. They love spiders. Not so much to eat, although why not? But they can easily raid the spider’s stash, so if they happen to know where there’s a great web, they may just snag the poor spider’s hard won dinner for themselves. It’s a dog eat dog world, after all.

Stealing the spider’s dinner isn’t the only thing hummingbirds do when they encounter a spider’s web. Hummers love the spider silk for their own nests. The silk makes the nest flexible, so it can stretch to fit the growing young birds. It’s also sticky, which makes it easy for the parents to cover the nest with lichens for camouflage – and that sticky silk holds the new nest tight on the branch. Hummingbird eggs are roughly the size of a kidney bean, but the babies grow very quickly for three weeks or more (weather dependent) as mom shoves her beak down their little gullets at least three times per hour.

So, if you love hummingbirds, you’ve got to love spiders, too.

You may see a lot of hummingbirds even if you don’t have a feeder. They are also fond of tubular shaped flowers they can sneak their beaks into for a quick shot of nectar, beating their wings in a figure eight pattern that allows them to hover like a bumblebee. Red is the color of choice. Bee balm – particularly the red, Monarda didyma – attracts them like the proverbial magnet. The birds easily chase away the eager butterflies; they will need to wait their turn for a chance at these choice flowers.

Other native flowers hummingbirds adore include Obedient Plant – Physostegia Virginia; Trumpet vines – Lonicera sempervirens; Cardinal Flower – Lobelia cardinalis, Penstemmons spp.; Coral Bells – Heuchera spp.; Witch Hazel – Hamamelis virginiana; and many others are great natives to plant for reliable bloom that repeats every year.

Weather is the most determinant factor in spring hummingbird migration. That being said, in our area we can start putting out filled feeders in mid-March or early April. This will help attract the birds to your yard at a time when flowers are few and far between and provide assistance to those who are planning on traveling further north for the summer.

Maureen Rice is a Master Gardener in Talbot County. A lifelong naturalist, Ms. Rice enjoys writing and research when she’s not playing in the dirt.

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