Nature Notes: A peanut sized bird and their 3,000-mile journey

Published 8:18 pm Friday, August 12, 2022

By Akiko Nakagawa

Naturalist Intern

Often seen zipping and humming around our sugar feeders in the summer are the smallest birds that are native to Minnesota, the ruby-throated hummingbird. Although there are over 350 different species of hummingbirds, the ruby-throated variety are the ones you will most likely find at your flowers and feeders.

Why might that be?

Because they’re actually the only species that nests east of the Great Plains. If you can get close enough to see the colors on these birds, you’ll see a deep green, jewel-toned body that seems to glitter in the sunlight. Like many birds, male ruby-throated hummingbirds have brighter coloration than their female counterparts; the characteristic bright red throats of males became the namesake for the species. Females generally appear to have white smudgy undersides instead.

Seeing these birds is a hallmark of summer, but as the end of summer approaches, these tiny birds embark on spectacularly long journeys. Ruby-throated hummingbirds can travel upwards of 3,000 miles to their winter sites in Mexico and Central America. The earliest ruby-throated hummingbird migrants, often adult males, will begin traveling south in early August. Females and young will follow a few weeks later.

This gradual migration that begins in August and continues through much of September allows males to arrive early at their winter sites to establish their territories. Additionally, the delay allows younger hummingbirds to have time to grow strong enough to successfully make the long journey.

Unlike many other birds such as geese or robins, who travel in flocks during migration, hummingbirds are solo travelers for their journey. This means that young hummingbirds (even ones that are only 1-2 months old) have to find their way all the way down to Central America on their own! So, what triggers the birds to know when and where to move? Scientists have suggested that one of the most important factors that dictates when hummingbirds move is the a.m.ount of daylight. As the days start to get shorter and the angle of the sun begins to shift, these hummingbirds naturally know that their time to migrate is approaching. They will begin to molt old feathers and eat extra to put on more weight.

While other bird species will travel the majority of their journey at night, these hummingbirds travel mostly during the day. Flying for them uses a lot of energy, so they will need to stop at as many flowers and feeders as possible along the way. They are mostly attracted to red or orange brightly colored, tube-shaped flowers. Native Minnesota wildflowers like bergamot (aka bee balm) and cardinal flowers are popular pitstops for these hummingbirds. If you already have these flowers planted, it may be fun to put out some sugar feeders to see these colorful birds as they leave Minnesota for their warmer homes down south. Stragglers may be around in Minnesota until the end of September, so be sure to leave your feeders up until then! Don’t forget to clean and change out your feeders at least once a week. Happy hummingbird migration season!

August at the Nature Center 

Wednesday: Volunteer Outdoor Work Day,  3:30-5 p.m.

Wednesday: Live Bird Program., 4 p.m.

Thursday: Senior Special/Nature Play

Saturday: Sola Fide Observatory Open House Night, 9-11 a.m.

September at the Nature Center

Sept. 3: Halloween Warm-up Tickets go on sale at Jim’s Super Fresh

Sept. 3: Sola Fide Observatory Open House, 9-11 p.m.

Sept. 5: Interpretive Center closed-trials remain open

Sept. 9: Red Cross Blood Drive, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sept. 10: Honey Harvest Open House, 9 a.m.-noon