Hummingbirds are a backyard favorite in the United States. Each year many of us look forward to their return in the spring, and spend the warm months putting out nectar and flowers to feed them. But as summer turns to fall, our tiny friends begin their long journey back to their wintering grounds and disappear from our yards. Where do hummingbirds go in the winter? How long is their migration? Do all hummingbirds travel to the same place?
In this article we dive into these questions and more.
Where do Hummingbirds Go In The Winter?
In general, hummingbirds that spend their summers in the United States will winter in Mexico and Central America. Some don’t venture quite as far as others. In this article we will look at the most common U.S. species of hummingbirds and talk about where and when each of them migrates.
Some hummingbirds do decide to stick around all winter in the U.S., or end up migrating much later than they usually would. If you have hummingbirds still visiting your yard when the temperatures get really cold, check out this article to find out how hummingbirds deal with the cold and tips for keeping your nectar from freezing.
Why do hummingbirds migrate?
Hummingbirds diet consists mainly of flower nectar and small insects, and they migrate to follow the food. Flowers and insects are abundant in the U.S. during the spring and summer, but as the weather turns cooler and those food sources become more scarce, they travel south to warmer climates where food is still plentiful.
True, they could just stay in areas closer to the equator that are fairly warm year-round, however competition for food and territory in the tropics can get fierce. There are other hummingbird species in Mexico and Central America that don’t migrate, so by heading north they can avoid some squabbles over limited resources.
How do hummingbirds know when to migrate?
You may think the air temperature or noticing changes in food supply is how they decide. While that may be true in the case of moving short distances, for the big migration it is actually something else. What hummingbirds are noticing is the change in daylight hours.
The amount of time the sun is up during the day changes slowly throughout the year on a predictable cycle. It’s basically nature’s calendar. As the daylight hours get shorter after the peak of summer, hummingbirds can tell when it’s time to move on. So don’t worry about leaving your hummingbird feeder out “too late” in the season, it won’t confuse them about when it’s time to head south.
Migration routes of 12 of the most common hummingbirds
Let’s take a look at the migration routes of some common hummingbirds found in the United States, and where they spend their winters.
1. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Medium to Long-Distance Migrant
Fall Migration: September – November
Spring Migration: March – May
The ruby-throated hummingbird is the most common hummingbird in the eastern half of the country. Some of the ruby’s from Canada will make a trip of over 2,000 miles to get to their wintering grounds in Central America. In the fall, they head south by either crossing over the Gulf of Mexico or traveling down through Texas, especially the eastern coast. They start to leave the northern states in mid-September and most are gone in the south by the end of October.
There are a few that stay in the U.S. through the winter, and they will tend to be along the Gulf coast, in southern Florida, or coastal areas of the south such as the Carolina’s. The ruby-throats that spend the winter in the U.S. are typically the ones that spent their summer at the far northern reaches of their range, such as Canada.
The majority of ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in southern Mexico, the Yucatan, and Central America in the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They don’t tend to stray farther south than Costa Rica.
When it is time to return in the spring, males actually start north earlier than the females. Sightings begin to pop up along the Gulf Coast at the beginning of March, the mid-Atlantic states in late March/early April, and then New England and the Great Lakes by mid-late April.
2. Rufous Hummingbird
Fall Migration: July – September
Spring Migration: January – March
Rufous hummingbirds are one of the most well-traveled hummingbirds in the world, as well as being the hummingbird with the most northern breeding range. Their summer breeding ground is the Pacific northwest (Washington, Oregon, parts of Idaho and Montana), Canada’s west coast and southern Alaska. In the fall, most take a route south following the Rocky Mountains.
Rufous will start to leave their northernmost range in Alaska and Canada as early as July. Most of the migration will happen during August and September, so if you live in a Rocky Mountain state keep a lookout for them starting in July through the fall. Most will reach their wintering grounds in Mexico or the Gulf coast by the end of October.
The brave Rufous’s that make the journey from Mexico to southern Alaska boast a round-trip journey of nearly 4,000 miles! Those that opt to stay in the U.S. will winter along the Gulf in coastal Texas, Louisiana and the Florida panhandle. A few are also sometimes found in the winter hanging out in Florida and other southeastern states.
Rufous hummingbirds can start to head north again as early as January and instead of traveling along the Rocky Mountains like they did in the fall, they head north by following the coast of California. They will reach their summer grounds by mid-March, so February is prime spotting time for the Rufous in California. Rufous are well adapted to deal with cold weather and can go into a semi-hibernating state called torpor at night to conserve energy.
3. Anna’s Hummingbird
Resident & Short-distance migrant
Most North American hummingbirds travel quite a distance during their migration, but not the Anna’s. These hummingbirds of the western U.S. either tend to stick around all year, or only travel short distances, mainly to find more abundant food sources. They are year round residents of Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona. Small populations of Anna’s may spread into the west coast of Canada, New Mexico, Baja or northeastern Mexico during the winter months.
4. Black-chinned Hummingbird
Medium to Long-distance migrant
Fall Migration: September-October
Spring Migration: March-April
The black-chinned hummingbird can be found throughout the western half of the U.S. Black-chinned’s have common breeding or migration ranges in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Like many hummingbirds, they head south for a sunny winter in Mexico.
They will start to leave their northern ranges in September and are pretty much gone from the northern states by October. During October they will leave the rest of their summer range and by November be at their wintering grounds.
In Mexico, this will tend to be the western parts of the country and areas of the western coast such as Puerto Vallarta. Some also spend winter in the U.S. along the Gulf coast in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. By March, they are heading back to their summer range and arrive back in most states in April.
5. Allen’s Hummingbird
Resident to Medium-distance migrant
Fall Migration: July-September
Spring Migration: February-April
While some hummingbirds on this list spend their summer over a wide area of the U.S., the Allen’s hummingbird is only found in a specific location, along the Pacific coast. They stick pretty firmly to the land along the shore in California and southern Oregon.
In the late summer they head south for central Mexico, around the Mexico City area, to spend the winter. Some may begin leaving in the northern areas of their range in July, while most begin in August. There is a small pocket around Los Angeles and the Channel Islands where the Allen’s hummingbird remains year-round. The Allen’s that winter in Mexico start to head back north early in the year, getting back to their grounds on the Pacific coast in February and March.
6. Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Fall Migration: August-September
Spring Migration: April-May
Broad-tailed hummingbirds love the mountains and breed at elevations up to 10,500 feet. They spend summers in the western U.S. all along the Rocky Mountains as well as areas in Arizona, Utah and California. Broad-tailed hummers begin to head south for Mexico in late August – early September.
They spend the winter mainly in central Mexico, but some do cross the southern border into Guatemala. A small group may stay in the U.S. for the winter in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, or along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana. They will begin to show up back at their summer ground in April and May.
7. Costa’s Hummingbird
Resident to Short-distance migrant
Costa’s are memorable for their flaring purple throat feathers, but they are only common in a very small section of the U.S. They can be found year-round in far southern California, the Baja Peninsula, southwestern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.
Some of the population will travel further south to the western coast of Mexico for the winter, and some will branch out further into Arizona and southern Nevada during the summer. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the best time to see them in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of the southwestern U.S. is between February and May. However even during the winter you should be able to find them in Los Angeles and San Diego.
8. Broad-billed Hummingbird
Resident, short-distance migrant when visiting the U.S.
The only two states in the U.S. where the broad-billed hummingbird is seen with regularity are Arizona and New Mexico. The main population of this species are year-round residents in western and central Mexico. A small population of them is known to cross the border into the southwestern U.S.
Most sightings will be around Phoenix, Tucson and southeastern Arizona. There isn’t a very defined migration season. You would be more likely to see them in Arizona during the spring and summer, however sightings remain possible throughout the winter.
9. Calliope hummingbird
Fall Migration: August-September
Spring Migration: March-May
Similarly to the rufous hummingbird, the calliope migrates north along the Pacific coast in the spring, then back south along the Rocky Mountains in the fall. They spend the summer in British Columbia and select areas of the northwestern U.S. In late August, early September they will begin to head south.
September is a great time for those around the Rocky Mountain region to spot them migrating through. By the end of October most have crossed the border into Mexico. They spend the winter in central Mexico, around Mexico City, and along the western coast in areas around Puerto Vallarta and Colima.
Calliope hummingbirds are also sometimes spotted in Texas and Louisiana during the winter, but not in large numbers. They begin to enter the U.S. again on their way north at the beginning of March.
10. Rivoli’s Hummingbird
While Rivoli’s hummingbirds are not common in the U.S., there is a small pocket in the southwest where they are regularly seen crossing the border from Mexico. Rivoli’s year-round home is Mexico and Central America, extending about as far south as Nicaragua. They may make short-distance “migrations”, moving up and down local elevations following mountain / valley blooming flowers.
While you have a chance of spotting some that cross the border into southeastern Arizona at any time of year, the best time to spot them in the U.S. would be between April and September. Outside of southwestern Arizona you may be able to spot them in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, or the far western section of Texas near El Paso.
11. Lucifer Hummingbird
Resident to Short-distance migrant
Fall Migration: September
Spring Migration: March-May
Lucifer Hummingbirds are found year-round in the central plateau of Mexico. A small population of them travel up to northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. to breed, and then travel back down to south-central Mexico for the winter. You may spot them along the Mexican border in Arizona, New Mexico or western Texas from March to September.
12. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Resident to short-distance migrant
Buff-bellied hummingbirds generally stay put within their range year-round. They can be found all year along the entire eastern coast of Mexico down into northern Belize and Guatemala. This year-round population also extends from Mexico across the border into the southeastern coast of Texas up until about the Corpus Christi area. While some of the Buff-bellied hummingbirds that live in Texas move south to winter in Mexico, a small population moves further north along the Gulf coast past Houston and into Louisiana.