Birds

Hummingbird Migration: the older the fatter the fatter the better

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species of hummingbird that breed in Eastern North America. They are Nearctic-Neotropical migrants. That means that they migrate northward from their wintering grounds in Central America during the spring and return in the fall.

Even though these flying jewels seem to arrive together during migration, they do not form flocks — they fly solo. Most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a solitary nonstop flight, close to 500 miles, over the Gulf of Mexico. The flight can take 18 to 22 hours to complete, according to Hummingbirds.net. Some will stopover on oil rigs or fishing boats.

Before taking off for this long journey, the hummingbirds fatten up to over twice their weight. Males, according to Hummingbirds.net, arrive to their summer breeding grounds before the females. When the summer dies down and flowers cease to bloom, ruby-throated hummingbirds begin their autumn migration.

Until recently, not a lot has been known about the hummingbirds’ fall migration stopovers. Researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi have found that some ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive earlier to their migration destinations than others. They found that older hummingbirds, on average, arrived earlier to their Central American wintering grounds than younger hummingbirds — a common observation in passerines.

It is thought that because males do not participate in raising the young, they leave for the wintering grounds sooner.

The older hummingbirds might arrive sooner than the younger hummingbirds because older birds have a shorter stopover period during migration. They might also arrive sooner because older hummingbirds take more direct routes, while younger inexperienced birds follow the coastline.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Image Credit: Orietta Estrada

Much like the spring migration patterns, researchers observed that the older male hummingbirds arrived to their wintering destinations earlier than the females. It is thought that because males do not participate in raising the young, they leave for the wintering grounds sooner.

Overall, the older hummingbirds arrived to Central America in better condition than the younger hummingbirds. This could be because the older hummingbirds are more experienced at bulking up for the long journey and their bodies are more efficient in flight.

If you have ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting your feeders in the spring, summer (and sometimes fall), it might be worth taking notice of their sex and making your own observations as to whether or not the males arrive or leave first.

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