Bird of the Week: Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Male ruby-throated hummingbird by William Heban
A male ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo by William Heban.

If you live anywhere within the eastern or midwestern part of the country, you already may have spotted your first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season—or maybe not. These tiny jewels of the bird world, which breed from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, can take their time getting from wintering grounds in Central America and Mexico to their summer territories in North America.

According to the experts at, wintering ruby-throated hummingbirds begin to fly north as early as January, reaching the northern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by the end of February. There they gorge on insects and spiders to bulk up before beginning their long flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Before setting off over the gulf, each bird will nearly double its weight, but will lose more than it has gained by the time it reaches U.S. shores.

“Migratory Marvels”

In her article, “Migratory Marvels,” in the current issue of National Wildlife magazine, science journalist Jessica Snyder Sachs notes that until the 1950s, many ornithologists scoffed at the idea that ruby-throated hummingbirds can travel  nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico to the United States—a distance of 600 miles. “Weighing in at a fraction of an ounce, hummingbirds are the world’s smallest birds and also have the highest oxygen consumption relative to their size,” she writes.

Sachs goes on to explain the tricks scientists have discovered hummingbirds use to accomplish such feats—including flying just above the waves to decrease water loss and “an unusual ability to abruptly flip from metabolizing carbohydrates to fat immediately prior to migration.”

Still, the birds are pooped—not to mention extremely hungry—by the time they make landfall. That’s why it is important to protect remaining patches of forest along the U.S. Gulf Coast, not just for hummingbirds, but for millions of other gulf-migrating songbirds, including vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers and orioles.

Protracted Migration

Ruby-throated hummingbirds head north from the Yucatan over the course of several months, a strategy that “prevents a catastrophic weather event from wiping out the entire species,” notes “Once in North America, migration proceeds at an average rate of about 20 miles per day, generally following the earliest blooming of flowers hummingbirds prefer.” Depending on where you live, you may see your first ruby-throat anytime between February and late May, when the species’ migration is complete.

If you live in the Southeast, it’s possible that your hummingbirds will not head south of the border for winter after all.  In a recent National Wildlife article, “The Hummingbirds of Winter,” South Carolina-based writer and hummingbird bander Doreen Cubie describes how backyard birders and volunteer banders like herself have been discovering apparent shifts in the cold-weather ranges of several hummingbird species—including ruby throats, which are being spotted more frequently in this country during winter.

Voice: Call is a short tew, tzip or t-tip.

Backyard Tips: It’s easy to attract ruby-throated hummingbirds to your yard by setting up sugar-water feeders and planting the tubular flowers the birds favor. Make sugar water by mixing about one-quarter cup of sugar with one cup of water.  Do not use food coloring and make sure to change the solution frequently. Watch out for cats, which pose a threat to hummingbirds: Some of these predators have learned to lie in wait near sugar-water feeders.

May is Garden for Wildlife Month, a perfect time to make your yard more inviting to birds and other backyard critters by creating an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Sources:, “Migratory Marvels” by Jessica Snyder Sachs, National Wildlife, April/May 2011, “The Hummingbirds of Winter” by Doreen Cubie, National Wildlife, December/January 2011, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, and National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Enter our Photo Contest!

Like this portrait of a ruby-throated hummingbird? Photographer William Heban took it from a photo blind in Toledo, Ohio, and entered the image in last year’s 40th annual National Wildlife Photo Contest. Why not enter your nature photos in the 41st annual National Wildlife Photo Contest? Winners in seven categories will appear in National Wildlife magazine alongside images taken by some of the world’s top nature photographers.