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How Do Hummingbirds Find Their Way Back


Dear Bird Folks,

Every April 28th, for the past three years, a hummingbird has returned to the exact spot where I hang my feeder, even though my feeder wasn’t out yet. The bird hovered, as if it expected a feeder to be there, and then moved on. Do you think this is the same bird, and if so, how does he/she remember how to find my house from year to year?

– Justin, Brookhaven, NY


It’s nice, Justin,

It is nice that you keep records of when the little hummingbirds return to your yard. It would be even nicer if you had your feeder out, filled and waiting for them when they arrived after their exhausting 2,200-mile flight from Central America. I don’t mean to give you a hard time, Justin, but let’s face it, you knew when the hummingbirds were coming and you had all winter to get that feeder ready for them. I have a neighbor like that. Every Halloween my kids show up on his doorstep and each year he seems shocked. He says, “Oops, I didn’t have a chance to get any Halloween candy.” There was no “chance” in 365 days? Talk about having time management issues. Now before you feel bad about my candy-less kids, don’t worry. They do fine. Over the years this guilt-ridden neighbor has handed out everything from fresh baked goods to lottery tickets, and once even cash. I keep waiting for one my kids to come home with a new car, but so far no luck.

The spring migration of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird begins at a time of year when hummingbirds are furthest from the minds of most Northerners. In early February, while many of us are thinking about skiing or cursing the cold, hummingbirds are getting restless on their wintering grounds in Central America. A mysterious force triggered by the change of daylight or some crazy internal clock tells the birds to stop what they are doing, board up their vacation cottage and start working their way back north.

Even while still in the tropics the journey is not easy for the ruby-throats. They are constantly crossing paths with the often larger and more aggressive resident hummingbirds. They must sneak quick sips from flowers without getting caught and beaten up. The traveling hummers not only have to find enough food to survive, but they also must find extra food in order to put on fat for the next phase of their trip. Before they can continue, the birds must bulk-up, increasing their weight from one zillionth of an ounce to two zillionths of an ounce. Ahead of them is a dangerous nonstop trip across the Gulf of Mexico, at least they hope it’s nonstop. If all goes well the tiny birds will reach the U.S. coast after about eighteen hours of continuous flying. Sometimes they run into a headwind and that can be trouble. If the wind is too strong, the birds run out of fuel and end up becoming recycled in the waters of the Gulf. Sometimes tired birds are lucky enough to find refuge on the decks of fishing boats, where they load up on peel-and-eat shrimp before continuing on.

The Gulf crossing is one of the few times hummingbirds fly at night. They leave at sunset in order to make landfall the following day, while there is still sunlight. The exhausted birds need to find food before darkness makes feeding impossible. After a meal and a night’s rest, the birds continue their journey northward.

How these birds, with brains the size of a Grape-Nut, find their way from the tropical rain forests to our backyards, has baffled scientists for years. The theories run from the bird’s ability to sense the earth’s magnetic pull, to using the sun and nighttime stars for navigation. There is also evidence that the bird follow a trail. No, it’s not a trail of breadcrumbs. Hansel and Gretel have the intellectual rights to that trail. What the birds follow is a trail with more substantial features. It appears birds are able to remember the placement of things they pass on their way south. The locations of lakes, rivers, interstates, and all the Stuckey’s are used to help the hummers retrace their steps each the spring.

Yes, Justin, I think the bird that was hovering where your feeder should have been is indeed the same bird you saw the year before, or at least a bird that has eaten from your feeder at some point in the past. Banding studies have shown that migrating hummingbirds make the same stops year after year, often on exactly the same day. And just so you know, the bird you called a “he/she” was a he. The males are the first birds you will see, followed by the ladies about ten days later. I know there should be some kind of sexist joke inserted here someplace, but who needs the letters. Besides, I have to go patch up things with my neighbor or my kids my never get that new car.