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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com or at home at (606) 932-3619.
His Web site is www.gsampiattbooks.com.