When to Expect Hummingbirds in Eastern North America?

when-to-expect-hummingbirds-eastern-north-america
photo: Francesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC by 2.0

In this article, I propose an approximate date to start feeding hummingbirds in Eastern North America, based on the time of arrival in the Spring and departure in the Fall.

The time of arrival and departure varies between male, females, and young hummingbirds.

The variation in time of arrival and departure is factored-in to produce approximate dates when backyard birders should start offering nectar to hummingbirds.

Regions A through D run from south to north (see map below).

On the table below, find the letter for the region that includes your location and obtain the approximate date to start feeding hummingbird.

Region Start feeding by Find your State and start feeding hummingbirds on the date proposed.
A

March 5

By March 15, birds that wintered in Mexico and Central America begin to arrive in the Gulf Coast of Southeast Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Florida. Then, birds continue moving further north onto Northeast Texas, Southeastern Oklahoma, Southern Arkansas, through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, other parts of Florida, Southern North Carolina, and Southern Tennessee. Males arrive first. Females arrive about ten days later. Arriving birds join the few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that stayed in the Southeastern States year-round.
B April 1 By April 10, hummingbirds begin to arrive in the States of Northern North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Southern New Jersey, Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Southern Missouri, Southeast Kansas, Northern Tennessee, and Arkansas.
C April 10 By April 20, hummingbirds begin to arrive in Northern New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Southern Vermont, Southern New Hampshire, New York, Southern Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Southern Michigan, Southern Wisconsin, and Iowa.
D April 25 By May 5 hummingbirds are present in all of Maine, Vermont, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Southern Ontario and Quebec, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Eastern North and South Dakota, and Southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in Canada.

Of the 18 species of hummingbirds known to occur in North America, eight spend part of the year breeding in the U.S. and Canada.

The other ten species have geographic ranges that come close or barely go over the U.S – Mexico border. These hummingbirds are mostly rare visitors or are restricted to the southern tips of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The eight hummingbirds that occur in North America are highly migratory and appear and disappear from our yards, leaving bird enthusiasts puzzled with questions.

This article is about the eastern region of North America and addresses the following questions:

When to expect hummingbirds in your yard?

How long are hummingbirds expected to be around?

When to start feeding hummingbirds in the Spring?

When do hummingbirds leave in the Fall?

Hummingbirds in Eastern North America

There is only one species of hummingbird in most of eastern North America; the Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).

By far, the most widespread hummingbird in North America, the Ruby-throated hummingbird, is a summer visitor that breeds primarily in the eastern half of North America.

Its breeding range encompasses that of the deciduous forests in eastern North America. The western limit of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s breeding range follows a north-to-south irregular line through the eastern half of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas (see map below).

In parts of some southeastern states, this gem is a year-round resident.

Appearance

The length from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail is about 7.5 to 9 cm (3 to 3.5 inches).  Weight in males is approximately 3.0 gr (0.1 oz), females 3.5 gr (0.12 oz).

The male Ruby-throated hummingbird has metallic green upperparts with a solid dusky-black tail. Adult males have an iridescent metallic red throat known as a gorget.

Although somewhat difficult to notice in the field, males have a black mask across the eye that extends toward the nape.

Males have a pale band below the gorget and greenish-gray rest of the belly.

The female has dull metallic green upperparts, but the underparts, including the throat, are grayish-white. Females of 5-6 years or older grow a few iridescent red feathers in the center of the throat.

The tail of a female is dusky-black with large white tips on the outer three pairs of feathers.

Juvenile birds of at least one year of age resemble adult females. Immature males begin to develop streaks of iridescent feathers on the throat in the second year before acquiring the adult plumage.

Males and females show differences in bill length, with females having a longer bill than the males.

when to start feeding hummingbirds

Habitat of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in North America?

During the breeding season in North America, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is found in eastern deciduous forests, mixed woodlands, forest edges, forest clearings gardens, and orchards.

In more northern latitudes, in Canada, they are found in boreal forests, forest edges, and old fields.

During migration, Ruby-throats occupy similar habitats like those in the breeding grounds.

In the wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are found in Tropical deciduous forests, orchards, second growth, and forest edges.

Birds that overwinter in the Southern States appear to be associated with suburban gardens with plenty of live oak (Quercus Virginians).

Migration of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds weight only 3-3.5 gr and are incapable of gliding or soaring. Yet, using a continuous flight, in a hummingbird-like fashion, they venture across the Gulf of Mexico every Spring and Fall. The round trip is about 1,600 km (994 miles).

Many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds take off from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. They are frequently observed flying low over the water of the Gulf of Mexico as they make landfall at the Gulf Coast in the U.S.

Hummingbirds prepare for the migratory journey by doubling their body mass before taking off.

They engage in an active feeding behavior where they eat as much nectar and insects as they can. Once they build their fat reserves, they are ready to either fly north in the Spring or fly south in the Fall to escape the North American winter.

Not all hummingbirds fly across the Gulf of Mexico.

Migratory Ruby-throated Hummingbirds either fly across the Gulf of Mexico or circumvent it along the Gulf Coast to migrate on a leap-frog fashion over land.

Birds use this migratory strategy in both the Spring and Fall migration.

What determines that some birds fly across the Gulf awhile others do not is unclear. However, banding studies found that juvenile birds tend to circumvent the Gulf of Mexico and fly overland while more experienced adults tend to fly across the Gulf.

Experienced adults, particularly males, arrive first in the U.S. during spring migration and leave early, back to the wintering grounds. During the Fall migration, adult males leave first followed by adult females, which are followed by juveniles and immature birds of both sexes.

Arrival in the Spring

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird begins to arrive on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. during the second week of March. There, they join the few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that overwintered in the southern U.S.

Birds continue arriving while early arrivals continue flying north during March and April. By early May, birds arrive in the eastern Canadian provinces.

Spring migration lasts approximately two months.

Timing of Migration by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Migratory hummingbirds in other regions of North America appear to time their arrival in the breeding grounds with the blooming of specific types of flowers. As of now, no one has been able to link the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird with the blooming period of any kind of flower.

The closest approximation is that their arrival takes place after the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) have already arrived. Ruby-throats obtain energy from the sap flowing from the holes sapsuckers make.

Hanging hummingbird feeders at the right time helps hungry hummingbirds, particularly the first days after arriving or while still moving through during migration.

hummingbird migration Eastern North AmericaBased on the available information, Eastern  North America is divided into four regions A, B, C, and D.  The dates on the right side of the map indicate the approximate time of arrival at each region. The breeding, migration, and wintering grounds were adapted from the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s page on All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A thorough literature review and analysis of actual sightings reported on the eBird database were used to obtain detailed information on the migratory movements of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The time of arrival at each region gives an idea about the time hummingbirds are expected in each State in the Spring.

When to expect hummingbirds in the spring and I can start to feed them?

The time of arrival at each region estimated from sight records and captures at bird banding stations.

I calculated ten days before the estimated time of arrival at each region (map above) to obtain the approximate date one should hang a hummingbird feeder with nectar.

Why ten days?

The available information shows variability in the date of the first arrivals, which can be influenced by weather conditions. Also, male hummingbirds leave the wintering ground ten days earlier than the females.

Ten days cover the variability in the initiation of migration and the difference in arrivals between males and females.

It is assumed that early arrivals will continue moving north, hence the 10-day approximation to start feeding the hungry hummingbirds.

The table below proposes dates to start feeding hummingbirds at each of the regions illustrated on the map above.  Find the letter for the region that includes your location and obtain the date to start feeding hummingbird showed on the table.

Region Start feeding by Find your State and start feeding hummingbirds on the date proposed.
A

March 5

By March 15, birds that wintered in Mexico and Central America begin to arrive in the Gulf Coast of Southeast Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Florida. Then, birds continue moving further north onto Northeast Texas, Southeastern Oklahoma, Southern Arkansas, through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, other parts of Florida, Southern North Carolina, and Southern Tennessee. Males arrive first. Females arrive about ten days later. Arriving birds join the few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that stayed in the Southeastern States year-round.
B April 1 By April 10, hummingbirds begin to arrive in the States of Northern North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Southern New Jersey, Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Southern Missouri, Southeast Kansas, Northern Tennessee, and Arkansas.
C April 10 By April 20, hummingbirds begin to arrive in Northern New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Southern Vermont, Southern New Hampshire, New York, Southern Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Southern Michigan, Southern Wisconsin, and Iowa.
D April 25 By May 5 hummingbirds are present in all of Maine, Vermont, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Southern Ontario and Quebec, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Eastern North and South Dakota, and Southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in Canada.

Steps to follow: 

  1. Find your location on the table above and initiate feeding hummingbirds on the proposed date.
  2. Fill the feeder with nectar with only 1/3 of the feeder’s capacity. At this point, no hummingbird will likely visit your feeder. If you live in the southeastern states (Region A), you may get hummingbirds year-round.
  3. Maintain the hummingbird feeder. You will need to change the nectar every 3 to 5 days. If the weather is hot and the feeder is in the sun, change the nectar every three days. If the weather is cool and the feeder does not get direct sun, change the content every five days. If spoiled nectar is left in the feeder, hummingbirds will taste it and leave and may not return. You will need to check the feeder regularly to see if hummingbirds are visiting it, and the content is being consumed.

Make your own nectar.

Homemade nectar is preferred over those sold at stores. Some commercially available hummingbird nectar has red coloring, which hummingbird do not need and can even harm to them.

Homemade hummingbird nectar is very simple to make.

The basic idea is mixing 4 parts of water x 1 part of regular granulated white sugar as follows:

  1. Prepare the water. Boil 4 cups of water for about three minutes.
  2. Add 1 cup of regular granulated white sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved.
  3. Boil de nectar mix for about 2 to three minutes to sterilize the mix and keep it longer without spoiling.
  4. Set the nectar to cool off to ambient temperature.
  5. Fill the feeders.

If you make more nectar than what you need, keep it in the refrigerator and use the nectar in the feeders as needed. Refrigerated nectar can last fresh and ready to use by hummingbirds for a long time.

How long does the Ruby-throated Hummingbird stay in Eastern North America?

There are two distinctive zones in Eastern North America. In regions B, C, and D on the map above, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird stays for about 8.5 months and is absent during the winter months of December, January, and March.

when to feed hummingbirds

The black bar above the months represents the presence and abundance of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Eastern North America. Thin sections of the black bar indicate fewer birds present.

The region A on the map encompasses southern and warmer states where the Ruby-throated hummingbird occurs year-round but in small numbers. In areas near the Gulf Coast, hummingbirds appear to occur in higher numbers than in the northern parts of the Southern States.

how long hummingbirds stay in Eastern North America


When do Hummingbirds leave in the Fall?

Fall migration is similar to the Spring migration in some aspects. Adult males leave first, followed by adult females and juveniles of both sexes.

Day length in northern latitudes such as in northern states and Canada is more noticeable than in southern states.  As days begin to shorten and temperatures turn colder, hummingbirds start their journey back to the wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

The table below shows the approximate date of the departures from the regions defined in the map above.

Region Status of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird
D As early as August 10, the first males begin to fly south. Fewer birds may not be noticeable until mid-October when females and juveniles are also flying south, and hummingbird numbers decline noticeably. Hummingbirds appear to be absent by the end of October, but a few linger until the end of November and early December.
C It appears region D and C are somewhat similar regarding the time bird begins to fly south. By late October, most of the hummingbirds are gone, but a few linger until mid-December.
B By mid-November, there is a dramatic decline in the number of hummingbirds in Region B.  The number of birds continues dwindling through December. Most hummingbirds are seemingly gone by the end of December.
A Between late September through November, most hummingbirds leave for Mexico and Central America. But some stay in Region A year-round. Hummingbirds are found in higher numbers in the southern half of region A.

 

Why Do Hummingbirds Migrate?

At the local level, birds are continually tracking down sources of abundant food, adequate shelter, and water.

At a larger scale, birds migrate to places where food and nesting places are plentiful and leave those places when resources become scarce.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and many other birds, migrate to North America to take advantage of the abundant resources brought about by fresh and vibrant growing and blooming plants, lots of rain, abundant insects and fruit, and plenty of nesting places to raise a family.

Conversely, as winter approaches and cold temperatures come along with decreasing resources, birds begin to move south for a steady supply of resources in the tropics.

What Triggers the spring and fall migration?

Migration in birds is triggered mainly by changes in day length, which is closely associated with changes in seasons through an annual cycle.

Day length comes along with changes in temperature and availability of resources. Increasingly longer days with warmer temperatures bring about spring-like conditions after the winter. Conversely, increasingly shorter days by the end of the summer gives way to Fall-like conditions that bring about diminishing resources.

There are other triggering mechanisms involved in prompting bird migration, which are poorly understood.

Do Hummingbirds return to the same yard every year?

Studies where migratory birds were banded and recaptured year after year, found that up to 60% of songbirds in the study returned to the same area and even to the same territory.

After traveling thousands of miles from their wintering grounds, hummingbirds do return to the same territory and yard, year after year, when conditions are suitable, and hummingbird feeders are still available.

As with other birds, hummingbirds are likely to use geographic cues, vegetation types, and even smell to recognize the region and particular conditions of their breeding territories and spots where feeders and other sources of food were located.

Finals Remarks:

Unlike other regions with several species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species in the eastern half of North America.  Ruby-throats are migratory and spend about eight months in North America, with some birds staying year-round in the southern states.

Based on information available, Ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive in North America by late February and early March and return to the Wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America by late November.

In this article, North America is divided into four regions. Based on the approximate time of arrival at each region,  I proposed dates to start offering nectar to migrating or breeding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

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