Keep your feeders filled and help these tiny creatures along their journey.

Patricia S. York

The end of summer brings mixed emotions. On the one hand, we say goodbye to long days spent enjoying the warm sun. On the other hand, we say hello to cooler weather and vibrant, fall color. One reason we look forward to this transition between the seasons, however, is the chance to witness the fall migration of hummingbirds. While a large population now seem to winter along the Gulf Coast and in the Carolinas, most hummingbirds will make the long and sometimes hazardous flight even further South.

Packing For The Trip

In the weeks before hummingbirds migrate, they begin to eat a lot more in order to put on weight and fat. A female might put on 25-40% more weight while a smaller male might double its weight. Hummingbirds consume 50% of their weight in sugar each day from flower nectar and feeders, with insects providing the remainder.

Amount of Daylight Triggers The Migration

Contrary to popular belief, hummingbird migration is not triggered by the amount of food that is available but by the length of the days. Some people worry that if they leave their feeders up throughout the fall, this will cause hummingbirds to stay in the area and potentially die from the coming cold weather. Fortunately, this is not true. It is a good idea to leave your feeders up and keep them full for at least two weeks after you see your last hummingbird visitor. This will guarantee that all hummingbirds passing through can find adequate nourishment as they make their long journey.

Hummingbirds Are Not Social Butterflies

The males usually start migrating first and, a few days or even weeks later, the females and the younger hummingbirds follow. By migrating alone, they are better able to take advantage of the available food supplies. Unlike larger birds, hummingbirds are too small to benefit from traveling in each other’s wake, so flying solo works best for these tiny creatures.

The Long Journey South

Depending on where the journey starts, the trip can take anywhere from one to two weeks. Capable of flying at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour, a hummingbird can cover a lot of ground in one day, but will stop to rest and feed along the way. During the fall migration periods, you will notice an increased number of hummingbirds at your feeders during dry weather, although they usually spend no more than a day in one area.

The Perilous Flight Across The Gulf of Mexico

Hummingbirds normally travel during the day and rest at night. For those making the long crossing across the Gulf however, they must fly for at least 18 hours (or longer, if the weather is bad) straight, until they reach dry ground again. If you live close to the Gulf Coast, help hummingbirds prepare for this crossing by growing lots of nectar flowers in your garden and keeping feeders filled with sugar water.

Don’t Be Alarmed – It's Just Torpor

Hummingbirds migrate because they can’t stand freezing temperatures for long periods of time. Mother Nature has equipped them to withstand the unexpected, however. If a cold snap sets in early, hummingbirds go into a state called torpor. Their little bodies will basically shut down all non-essential functions, their temperatures drop by up to 50 degrees, and their heartbeats slow to almost a standstill. A hummingbird in torpor state will often hang upside-down from a tree or feeder, so don’t be alarmed if you see this; they will “wake up” and be about their journey once the weather warms up a bit.