Migrating Hummingbirds

Nov 9, 2017

Have you ever had someone tell you hummingbirds ride south on the backs of geese in the fall? In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist looks at this charming, albeit false, old wives’ tale.

My mom always used to tell me that hummingbirds traveled south for the winter riding on the backs of Canada geese.  While this is a charming and compelling tale, the fact is that these little birds don’t hitchhike their way south. They migrate like many other bird species. 

Migration is an amazing survival adaptation that allows birds to travel long distances between winter and summer homes. They use many different tools to navigate. Some species use geographical landmarks, others fly at night using heavenly bodies, and some have a kind of built in magnetic compass in their heads. Birds also have many different ways of traveling south. Some leave early, fly extremely far, and come back as soon as possible. Many small songbirds, what we biologists call neotropical migrants, form such large flocks that they can be picked up on weather radar. They can travel halfway across the continent without stopping, if the conditions are right. They travel up to 3,000 miles to Central America or northern South America and settle into their winter home.

By contrast, the American Woodcock, a distant shorebird relative is probably just starting to migrate now. This bird has adapted to living in fields and forests, where it finds its invertebrate food in the shallow mud. They fly in rather small groups, just above the treetops, and might only travel a few miles a day. They don’t head to Central America—they head toward the Gulf coast states.

Some birds will gather up to migrate as a large group, heading south just ahead of freezing water.  Ducks and geese are good examples; they “stage” in areas before they migrate, then move south in large flocks, staying just south of the snow and frozen water line. The nature of waterfowl migration easily debunks my mom’s “old wives’ tale” about hummingbirds and geese. Geese can fly in the upper atmosphere, at average speeds of 40 mph. I doubt a hummingbird could even hang onto a goose’s back at those speeds, heights, and temperatures.  Additionally, I believe Canada geese stop in the gulf coastal region, too far north for hummingbirds.

So what do hummingbirds do?  They leave Canada and the northern U.S. and fly solo about 2,000 miles to Panama. Their straight-line flight would have to include passing over the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of miles over open water—during hurricane season. Thanks to specially modified wing bones, they flap their wings about 80 times a minute. They can sustain a speed of 25 miles per hour, and they can fly up to 600 miles before they use up all their available fat and fuel reserves. They may need to cross up to 500 miles of the Gulf to get to Panama.  Once there, they rest, feed, and prepare to head back up to our latitude first thing in spring. These birds travel thousands of miles annually to spend the growing season in Wisconsin, hatch and raise their young, and drink from our hummingbird feeders.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.