Hummingbirds are amazing birds, but despite their familiarity to many backyard birders, there are still many misconceptions about these tiny fliers. Those misconceptions, myths and legends are especially popular concerning migration – just how do such tiny birds migrate hundreds or thousands of miles every year? How do they manage to return to the same favorite feeding spots and nesting grounds year after year?
Debunking the top migration myths can help us all better appreciate just how amazing hummingbirds are!
Top 5 Myths About Hummingbird Migration
There are a lot of crazy thoughts about bird migration, especially when tiny birds like hummingbirds are migrating. Don't fall for these crazy tales!
Myth #1: All hummingbirds migrate in spring and fall. In fact, most hummingbirds never migrate at all! There are more than 320 hummingbird species in the world, and most of them live in lush tropical regions that are well able to support thriving populations of these nectar-loving birds year-round, so there is no need for them to migrate. Even in the United States and Canada, not all hummingbirds migrate from more temperate areas – Anna's hummingbirds are year-round residents of southwestern Arizona and along the Pacific Coast as far north as British Columbia. The Costa's hummingbird enjoys year-round life in southern California and southwestern Arizona as well. In eastern Texas and along the Gulf Coast, buff-bellied hummingbirds can easily be found year-round.
Myth #2: All migrating hummingbirds travel to South America in winter. While many hummingbirds do spend winters in the tropical habitats of South America, plenty of hummers only go as far south as Mexico or Central America when they migrate. Many northern hummingbirds spend their winters on different Caribbean islands, and some never leave the United States at all – the ruby-throated hummingbird often overwinters in southern Florida or along the Gulf Coast, and rufous hummingbirds are becoming more common throughout the southeastern United States in winter.
Myth #3: Feeding hummingbirds will prevent them from migrating. This is a persistent myth, and one of the most dangerous. There is no scientific evidence at all that keeping hummingbird feeders out in late fall stops hummingbird migration, but those feeders are critical to help hummers fuel up along their journeys. It is actually the length of the days that signals to hummingbirds that it is time to migrate, and they need plenty of healthy food along the way to keep their energy up for their long flights. If feeders are removed, many more hummingbirds would starve before they ever reach their wintering range.
Myth #4: Hummingbirds cling to the backs of larger birds in order to migrate long distances. This is one of the craziest myths about hummer migration, but one of the most persistent. While it can be hard to believe these tiny birds can fly thousands of miles, including crossing the 500 miles of the Gulf of Mexico all at once, they're more than capable of making their own way as they migrate. Larger birds often migrate at different times than hummers, take different routes than hummingbirds, and fly at different altitudes than hummers choose. Furthermore, many of the birds hummingbirds supposedly cling to, such as Canada geese, may never migrate at all from ranges where hummingbirds migrate.
Myth #5: Hummingbirds will hibernate in mud when they're not migrating. This might be the weirdest hummingbird migration myth of all, but it actually has a grain of truth to it. While hummingbirds don't actually hibernate, they can go into torpor – a type of semi-hibernation overnight when they can lower their body temperature up to 30 degrees and slow their respiration, heart rate and metabolism accordingly. While this isn't hibernation per se (and mud has nothing to do with it at all), it does help hummers conserve energy through a chilly night until they can get going the next morning. Of course, hummingbirds don't use torpor just during migration – they may use it at any time there is a cold snap, even on a chilly night in midsummer.
Separating the fact from fiction about hummingbird migration can be a challenge. The more we learn about how these tiny birds travel such great distances, however, the better we can appreciate just how outstanding they can be and the more we anticipate their amazing journeys!