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G. Sam Piatt

PDT Outdoors Columnist

The last time I drove straight through from central Florida to my home in

northeastern Kentucky the trip took 17 hours. Actually my late brother-in-law,

Ross Wright, did all the driving, refusing any relief from me. I think he took

one of those little “truck-driver” pills upon leaving the Sunshine State.

My late father, Bruce, was with us on this 1977 fishing trip to Florida, but he

hadn’t driven a car in more than 50 years, not since he rolled his 1923 Ford

over an embankment after drinking a little too much liquor and shooting a hole

in the dance floor at a local gathering.

He never tasted an alcoholic beverage again and never climbed behind the wheel

of a motorized vehicle again.

But I’m getting off the subject, which is hummingbird migration. These little

birds, weighing less than a nickel, on their migration from here to South

America, fly nonstop across the 500 miles of water making up the Gulf of Mexico.

Their trip takes 18-22 hours, depending on the weather.

Some hummingbirds have been seen landing on offshore oil rigs or fishing boats

to rest.

I attracted only three hummers to my feeder hanging in the front-yard dogwood

tree where I can enjoy watching their activity from the front porch. Yesterday,

only one remained, and he seemed to be feeding up on the red “nectar” my wife

Bonnie mixes, like he was packing his suitcase for the long trip south.

Researchers tell us that some Ruby-throated, one of several species that

frequent our feeders here from late April to early September, remain along

the Gulf coast each winter instead of continuing to Central America, perhaps

because they are too old or sick to make another trans-Gulf flight or too young

(from very late nests) to have had time to grow fat and strong enough to

migrate. Another small population winters in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Some hummingbirds live as long as 12 years.

Here’s a few facts I learned about hummingbirds from reading about them on the

Internet. The readers could have done that for themselves, but it’s a fact that

not all readers have computers. There are people in this world who can still

live without one, even without an iPhone.

Some of this remaining column will rate as pure plagiarism, as pure as I can

write it. Plagiarism leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If I was aware of who to

give credit for the writing, I certainly would do so.


Hummingbirds lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, such as

geese do. Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and

northern Panama.

On the return trip, Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January and by

the end of February they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on

insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the

U.S. Some will skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while

most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk for a nonstop flight.

Individual birds may make landfall anywhere between southern Texas and central

Florida. Before departing, each bird will have nearly doubled its weight, from

about 3.25 grams to over 6 grams; when it reaches the U.S. Gulf coast, it may

weigh only 2.5 grams.

It’s also possible that a few Ruby-throats island-hop across the Caribbean and

enter the U.S. through the Florida Keys.

Sometimes we worry that ants or other insects get into the nectar, but a

hummingbird would probably like that. The nectar they lap up with fringed,

forked tongues is just the fuel to power their fly-catching activity. They are

carnivores, something I certainly did not know.


The northward migration is complete by late May. Banding studies show that each

bird tends to return every year to the same place it hatched, even visiting the

same feeders.

There is evidence that fewer Ruby-throats cross the Gulf in fall than in spring,

most instead following the Texas coast back into Mexico

The number of birds migrating south in late August and early September may be

twice that of the northward trip, since it includes all immature birds that

hatched during the summer, as well as surviving adults.

For a hummer that just hatched, there’s no memory of past migrations, only an

urge to put on a lot of weight and fly in a particular direction for a certain

amount of time, then look for a good place to spend the winter.

Once it learns such a route, a bird may retrace it every year as long as it

lives. The initial urge is triggered by the shortening length of sunlight as

autumn approaches.

It’s not necessary to take down feeders to force hummingbirds to leave, and in

the fall all the birds at your feeder are already migrating anyway. If you

remove your feeder too soon, birds will just feed elsewhere, but may not bother

to return to your yard the next year.

Immature females may have much lighter streaks in their throats, but no red.

G. SAM PIATT can be reached at gsamwriter@twc.com or at home at (606) 932-3619.

His Web site is www.gsampiattbooks.com.

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