Tracking Hummingbird Migration

The first ruby-throats typically reach the Gulf Coast in late February or early March, often making a nonstop 18- to 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico. This photo captures the first migrant to arrive at a reader's hummingbird feeder.

The return of the first ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most highly anticipated spring events in eastern North America. Although a few of these winged gems spend the winter months in parts of the southern United States, the vast majority winter in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Each year the hummingbirds travel remarkable distances between their wintering grounds and their summer breeding areas, which span from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada.

The first ruby-throats typically reach the Gulf Coast in late February or early March, often making a nonstop 18- to 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The birds move northward from there, relying heavily on the emergence of spring flowers as they make their way up through the United States. By early May, most of the Canada-bound hummingbirds have reached their destination, and most of the eastern two-thirds of North America is populated by ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Keeping track of the northward progression of these birds can help create an interesting picture of migration patterns. Lanny Chambers of St. Louis, Missouri, has been doing exactly that since 1997. By collecting thousands of reports each year from volunteer observers across North America, Chambers has constructed nearly real-time maps of when and where hummingbirds are showing up across the continent. Visit to view the maps, and consider contributing your own observations to this project.

About Kyle Carlsen

Kyle is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. When not writing about birds, he divides his time between backpacking, traveling, and composing piano music. He's also a self-described coffee addict.

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  • Has anyone seen birds from the West Indies that have been blown north in hurricane Matthew? I believe I have seen a Western Spindalis twice at my birdfeeder today, Oct. 9. I live North of Orlando and West of Deland Florida. I will keep watching for him tomorrow as well.
    by Laura Oakes, Sun, 09 Oct 2016
  • A fantastic image of a beautiful bird, nice capture!!!
    by Laurel Butkins, Fri, 23 Sep 2016
  • Thanks for the information. I'll be getting some hummer feeders!
    by Janie McCarty, Wed, 15 Jun 2016
  • Hi Marilyn: I suppose traffic could be a deterrent, but I suspect I bigger problem is that hummingbirds simply haven't discovered your offering, or even your neighborhood. It can take months or even years for hummingbirds to find a feeder, especially if it's in an area they aren't in the habit of using. You might try again, but don't offer much nectar–"it'll be a waste of sugar water. Offer just a tiny amount, like one tablespoon of sugar mixed with a quarter cup of water. Replace it when it starts to go cloudy, and wash the feeder. You might have to do this for a very long time before you get your customer, but odds are, it will tell its friends, and eventually, you'll need to increase your offering. Good luck! --Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher's Digest
    by Dawn, Wed, 15 Jun 2016
  • Hi Janie: Yes, table sugar is refined, but it is not at all harmful to birds. No synthetic chemicals are added in the processing; rather, the sugar is purified. When dissolved in water, table sugar is chemically the same (or very nearly so) as the nectar that occurs naturally in flowering plants. Humans have been feeding sugar water (a ratio of 4 parts water to one part sugar) to hummingbirds for decades, and there are no harmful effects. It is not necessary to add red dye to sugar water in hummingbird feeders. The jury is still out as to whether red dye is harmful to hummingbirds, but ... why take the risk? --Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher's Digest.
    by Dawn, Wed, 15 Jun 2016