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Hummingbirds On-Line!

by Dr. H. Ross Hawkins
Founder and Executive Director

a free e-newsletter for anyone interested in hummingbirds

Date of issue September 6, 2009
Issue Number 2009-03

Special Announcement:
The Rockport/Fulton Hummer/Bird Celebration September 17-20, 2009

The biggest hummingbird festival in the US is coming up very soon! Held in Rockport/Fulton, Texas, about a half hour north of Corpus Christi, this event will draw 5,000-10,000 hummingbird lovers. You’d love it! Visual presentations, banding demonstrations, private yards open to the public to watch the incredible numbers who pass through the town a part of the migration. While some Ruby-throats fly across the Gulf in the fall, a sizeable number follow the Texas Gulf Coast and do not venture over the water. This festival is timed for the estimated peak in migrant population.

The Hummingbird Society will have a booth at the event. The Executive Director, H. Ross Hawkins, will be a presenter on the topic "HummerLove: courtship and nesting in Hummingbirds".

More information is available at

Migration–what a feat!

Migrating hummers in Sedona, AZ;photo © Ross Hawkins

It is close to miraculous: a tiny bird only three inches long and weighing only 1/10 of an ounce manages to fly thousands of miles to reach a warmer destination in the winter. In terms of the hummers’ size, it is the longest migration of any bird in the world: 21,000,000 body lengths. For a 6-foot human, this equates to 20,000 miles. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird, so familiar to those who live in the eastern half of the U.S., flies up to 2,000 miles from parts of Canada to Mexico–and even further, as far as Panama. The Rufous Hummingbird, which nests as far north as parts of Alaska, flies up to 3,000 miles! Let’s do a little arithmetic: If they average 20 miles an hour, a 2,000 mile trip requires 100 hours; if the wings are beating around 50 beats per second, that works out to 18 million wing beats. No wonder the migrating hummingbirds are so hungry when they discover your feeders!

Not all hummingbirds migrate. In Central and most of South America, food is abundant year ’round, and migration is limited, mostly to changes in altitude. But our migrants have evolved to take advantage of food and nesting space in more distant locales, and historically evolution has inclined them to take the enormous risks over a journey that is so long.

I still marvel at the Ruby-throats who fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico! The only place they will ever get a chance to stop and rest is on a boat or a drilling platform—and they have been observed to do this. I’ve heard occasional reports of shrimp boats who put out feeders, but so far no documenting photographs. We’ve received photos from two workers on drilling platforms. Tony Chapa, a medic on one such platform, took the photo below and shows that even a homemade feeder (IV drip bag, coffee stirrers, and ear plugs!) is recognized and welcomed by migrants who stop by. (Can you see all three hummers?)

Photo © Tony Chapa

When a hummer migrates, its primary stimulus is the number of hours of daylight in the day—which is why hummers in Canada start moving before their cousins in more southern locations. In an interesting experiment, a scientist kept a Rufous in a cage and weighed it daily. Almost like magic, one day the weight began to increase, until it weighed 35% more, then leveled off. The bird knew it was time to migrate and had begun to prepare.

The extra weight, carried as fat just under the skin, has often been observed by banders. Think of the fat as being analogous to the wingtip fuel tanks carried by some airplanes: the flight range is extended because of the extra fuel. This gives a cushion to unexpected problems with finding food, weather disruption, etc., as they fly over land. Ruby-throats do the same, but when they arrive on the Gulf Coast, then they add up to 100% excess fat above their normal weight. These are plump hummers! When they fly across the Gulf to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, they will burn off the fat, having none left upon arrival. If 100% fat enables them to fly 600 miles, then we can reason that the 35% carried by the Rufous mentioned above can, in theory, carry it up to 200 miles with stopping to eat. Fat provides a safety cushion for a migrating bird.

Upon arrival at each stop along the way, these hummers are hungry! And while on the one hand this gives them even more reason to be feisty and territorial, the impracticality of fighting twenty other migrants at the same feeder results in a greater tranquility than one might expect (but not always!).

You can help migrants by putting out more feeders than usual, and bunching them up instead of scattering often results in less fighting (see above).

Frequent Migration Question: when to take down feeders

Starting about mid-August, the e-mails at the Society begin pouring in with the same question: when do I take down my feeders. This question arises from areas where the species migrate south for the winter. That covers about 90% of the U.S.! The concern is frequently expressed that they don’t want to keep the hummingbirds to stick around when they should be migrating. This is a compassionate question, because no one likes to imagine a hummingbird freezing to death in a winter it was not able to endure.

Well, you don’t have to worry. You couldn’t force them to stay by keeping up your feeders if you tried! And you can’t make everyone else take down their feeders, anyway, nor tell everyone to cut down flowers that might retard their journey.

So, when do you take down the feeders? Our recommendation is to leave them up until you haven’t seen a single hummer for three weeks. All your neighborhood hummingbirds may have disappeared, but you want to allow for the stragglers who, for whatever reason, did not start their migration on schedule, or perhaps were delayed. You could be a real lifesaver for these birds! Most flowers will be past their peak then, so your feeder would be a welcome sight. Conversely, taking down the feeders too early could reduce their ability to continue their migration.
About those hummingbird nests…

In the last issue of this e-letter, we talked about hummingbird nests, and I want to review the topic a bit further. If you have been fortunate enough to find a nest, keep this in mind: returning hummers next spring may use the nest wholly and repair it, or they may use it as a source of materials for a new nest. So don’t collect it. You may also be surprised to learn that as migratory birds, their nests are protected by treaty, and possession is a felony offense (yikes!).

New HB101 card

We have just reprinted our very popular "Hummingbirds 101" card, a small (4×6 inches) card jam-packed with more basic information about hummingbirds than you would think possible. The contents of the card reflects thirteen years of answering questions by mail, email, and telephone—we have a very good fix on what Inquiring Minds Want to Know About Hummingbirds. So far over 20,000 have been distributed, so we have printed another 20,000. You can download a PDF of this 2-sided card; this PDF has been enlarged 50% to make it easier to read.

These cards are free, thanks to one of our corporate sponsors, Parasol LLC ( Just send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to us and we’ll send it back with 1-5 cards, as you request. You can order more, if your garden or bird club or your store would like to hand them out. Just send us your request, and if you could include a little donation to cover postage, we’d appreciate it, because they are surprisingly heavy.

Special offer to prior members of the Hummingbird Society

If you have been a member of the Hummingbird Society but let your membership lapse, we have a special offer provided the membership expiration date was before 2007: We’ll renew your membership at the regular price of $30, for which you will receive four future issues of our all-color newsletter, The Hummingbird Connection, AND you will also receive the last 4 issues that you missed as well! This will keep you busy reading during your evenings for quite a while! No extra cost.

At the time of this writing, here are the latest 4 issues:

If you’re not sure of your membership status, call us at 800 529-3699, or email

Of course, if you’ve never joined the Society before, now would be a good time to start!


Join the Hummingbird Society and help us honor these tiny birds. Without our
many of them fact an uncertain future. Membership starts at $30 a year ($36 for
delivery outside the US), although higher levels are available. Just go to our website
at and click on Join/Donate. We’d love to have you!

Copyright 2009 The Hummingbird Society.  All rights reserved.  Contact us for rights to
reproduce any information contained herein, without charge.  The Hummingbird
Society offices
are located at 6560 Highway 179, Suite 204, Sedona, AZ 86351 USA
Our telephone numbers are (800) 529-3699 and (928) 284-2251.  Queries can be
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