Weighing less than a nickel, these hummingbirds migrate 1,000s of miles to the U.S.!


The Calliope Hummingbird flies from Central America to the U.S. and Canada every spring — and back again in the fall. Many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fly a path north across the Gulf of Mexico to the U.S. — that’s non-stop, more than 500 miles over water — and make a return trip in the fall! Imagine a nickel in your hand — the following nine tiny birds weighing no more than that, fly amazing distances every year!

Their journey is fraught with danger. Weather hazards can be fierce: extreme heat or cold; drought can cause dehydration; heavy rains can force them to the ground; strong winds can blow them into obstacles. Predators, especially cats, but also larger birds, rodents, snakes, and even large dragonflies and spiders are known to kill hummingbirds when they can catch them. Windows kill, too, when they reflect trees and hummingbirds crash into them.

So, why do these tiny birds trouble themselves to migrate? Essentially, because they’re tropical birds that began expanding their ranges in the summer and discovered exploitable food resources and nesting spaces in the U.S. and Canada. Unfortunately for them, that doesn’t last. When fall comes, their main food — insects — goes into decline, forcing the birds to move back south. There are, however, some unique hummingbirds that have adapted to North American climates by becoming vegetarians in the winter!

Hummingbirds are noted for drinking nectar, giving the impression that nectar is their primary food, but as Hummingbirds.net puts it “…nectar is just the fuel to power their fly-catching activity…” Still, we can help these valiant little birds as they make their long, long journey by providing nectar, which gives them energy.

So, hang nectar feeders out a little ahead of when you expect the first arrivals. The nectar is simply a sugar solution. It’s easy to make: 4 parts water to 1 part sugar, and don’t use red dye, as it’s unhealthy for them. Shake the solution periodically until all sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate any unused portion. That’s it! Keep the feeder fresh and replace the solution every few days. It’ll last longer in cool weather, but don’t let it become murky, an indicator that it’s getting moldy.

Here are the migrating hummingbirds to watch for, the areas of the U.S. they migrate to and the periods of their expected arrival and departure. Plus, a bit of additional information about them. The time they arrive in your area will depend on your location; for instance, in the cooler northern states, they’ll arrive a bit later in the spring and leave earlier in the fall.

Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)

Allen's Hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin, standing on a white flower.

Allen’s Hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin, male. (Shravans14 / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0

Allen’s Hummingbirds have a strong resemblance to the Rufous Hummingbird. They move up- and downslope following seasonal food sources, between the central Pacific Coast of Mexico and the northern U.S. West Coast. Arrival: January to April. Departure: July and August. Weight: 0.1-ounce (2.8 gr), about the weight of a U.S. dime. Length: 3-1/2 inches (8.9 cm); Wingspan 4-1/3 inches (11 cm).

 Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri, standing on a wire.

Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri, male. (gailhampshire / Wiki; cc by 2.0)

Black-chinned Hummingbirds migrate between Mexico and the western U.S. and southern British Columbia. A thin strip of iridescent-purple borders the black chin of the male, but it’s only visible in just the right light. Arrival: mid-March through May. Departure: mid-August through September. Weight: 0.1 to 0.2 ounce (2.8 to 5.7 gm). Length: 3-1/2 inches (8.9 cm). Wingspan: 4-1/3 inches (11 cm).

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus)

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Selasphorus platycercus, drinking nectar from pink flower while hovering.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Selasphorus platycercus, male. (BMC Ecology / Flickr; cc by 2.0).jpg

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds possess physical and behavioral adaptations for dealing with cold nights. They migrate between Central America and scattered areas of the western U.S., including the south-central Rockies. Arrival: March and April. Departure: September through late-October. Weight: 0.1 ounce (2.8 gm). Length: 3 to 3-1/2 inches (7.6 to 8.9 cm). Wingspan: 5 inches (12.7 cm).

Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope)

Calliope hummingbird, Stellula calliope, perched on orange-colored hummingbird feeder.

Calliope Hummingbird, Stellula calliope, male. (Rocky Raybell / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Calliope Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in North America north of Mexico. They’re also the smallest migrating birds in the world. They migrate between Central America and the western U.S. and Canada. Arrival: March to late-May. Departure: July and August. Weight: 0.1 ounce (2.8 gm). Length: 3-1/2 inches (8.9 cm). Wingspan 4-1/3 inches (11 cm).

Costa’s Hummingbird (Calypte costae)

Costa's Hummingbird, Calypte costae, standing on a thin tree branch.

Costa’s Hummingbird, Calypte costae, male. (Wiki / PDPhoto copy

Costa’s Hummingbirds migrate between Mexico and Baja California, Mexico and the southwestern U.S. On the hottest of days, they move from desert to chaparral, scrub or woodland habitat. Arrival: January to March. Departure: May leave desert areas as soon as late-May. Weight: 0.1 ounce (2.8 gm). Length: 3-1/2 inches (8.9 cm). Wingspan: 4-1/3 inches (11 cm).

Lucifer’s Hummingbird (Calothorax lucifer)

Lucifer's Hummingbird, Calothorax lucifer, perched on a red hummingbird feeder.

Lucifer’s Hummingbird, Calothorax lucifer, male. (Alan Schmierer / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Lucifer’s Hummingbirds migrate between Central America and the extreme southern tip of Arizona and New Mexico. Their curved bill and narrow, forked tail make them distinctive. Arrival: early-April. Departure: early-October. Weight: 0.1 ounce (2.8 gm). Length: 3-1/2 inches (8.9 cm). Wingspan: 4 inches (10.1 cm).

Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens)

Magnificent Hummingbird, Eugenes fulgens, male hovering next to an orange flower

Magnificent Hummingbird, Eugenes fulgens, male. (naturespicsonline / Wiki; PD)

Magnificent Hummingbirds are the second-largest hummingbirds north of Mexico. They migrate between Central America and the southern tip of Arizona and New Mexico. Arrival: late-March. Departure: late-October to early-November.  Weight: 0.2 to 0.3 ounce (5.7 to 8.5 gm). Length: 4-1/3 to 5-1/2 inches long (11 to 14 cm). Wingspan: 7 inches (17.7 cm).

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris, male, hovering above pentas flowers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris, male. (Rick from Alabama / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only breeding hummingbirds in eastern North America. They can only shuffle along a perch, as their legs are too short to walk or hop. They migrate between Central America and the U.S., mostly east of the Mississippi River, and into Canada. Thousands migrate back and forth across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles, non-stop each way.  Arrival: March through May. Departure: late-July to late-October. Weight: 0.1 to 0.2 ounce (2.8 to 5.7 gm). Length: 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 inches (7 to 8.9 cm). Wingspan: 3 to 4-1/3 inches (8 to 11 cm).

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)

Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, perched on a thin tree branch.

Rufous Hummingbird male. (B Garrett / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Rufous Hummingbirds make one of the longest migrations in the world, as measured by body size. They travel 3,900 miles between Mexico and western North America and southern Alaska. They’re feisty and territorial at feeders. Arrival: February to May. Departure: June to August. Weight: 0.1 to 0.2 ounce. Length: 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 inches (7 to 8.9 cm). Wingspan: 4-1/3 inches (11 cm).

*Top photo: Calliope Hummingbird. (Kati Fleming / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

More reading:

Hummingbird nectar recipe   
World’s smartest birds   
Hummingbirds of North America