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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Are on the Move!

By Marna Towne (Mrs_EdSeptember 18, 2012
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Late August is a happy time for me in the garden. While some gardeners dread the lull between the July daylily bloom and the September chrysanthemum and aster show, I look forward to the time when migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return. I admit I have an obsession with attracting these flying jewels to my garden and feeders for the entire summer. That quest has left me a bit empty at times but my efforts are rewarded come fall.

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 13, 2009.  Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

Ask any regular contributor on the Dave's Garden Bird Watching Forum who whines the most about the lack of hummingbird sightings throughout the summer and they will surely tell you, "Mrs_Ed." Without a doubt, they are completely right.

I made it my mission to attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to the garden for the past three or four years. Though unsuccessful, I keep trying… and whining! Using what I've learned from research and other's success, I've added quite a few nectar plants for hummingbirds to the garden. I'm even considering a big red arrow on the roof that so many have suggested!

In the meantime, I know that I'll have these lovely little birds visit during the fall hummingbird migration. Each September, I have a number of hummingbird travellers in my northwest Illinois garden. Arriving between the last week in August or the first week in September, these mostly female and juvenile male birds visit feeders and plants while en route to warmer winter grounds. New visitors come and go until the first week in October and put on a show like none other. Sigh. I am happy once again.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are neotropical migrants. This group of birds nests in North America, but travels south for the winter to enjoy the warmer climates of Central and South America, and even Mexico. While North America provides wonderful breeding habitats for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the winters are a hostile climate lacking food sources. In the warmer climates, hummingbirds thrive on nectar-rich flowers and plentiful insects. 

The Journey

Though some Ruby-throated hummingbirds are found wintering along the Gulf of Mexico and North Carolina's Outer Banks, most make a long journey to Central America and Mexico. Mature males are the first to begin the journey south, departing July through August in daylight hours. To follow are the adult females in September. The juveniles are last to leave — depending on age — in late September to mid-November. [1] Of course, the farther south you live, the later your migration will begin. By the first of October, migrants are observed in Central America.[2] Many of the birds choose a direct route south, crossing the Gulf of Mexico with no stops. Quite a feat considering it's nearly 500–600 miles during hurricane season! 

This photo from 'dellrose' shows the feeding frenzy at her feeders. Just a typical fall day at the farm!

While they make frequent feeding stops on the continental U.S., Ruby-throated Hummingbirds need to indulge in large amounts of nectar and protein before they cross the Gulf. It is beneficial that the Gulf Coast states have an abundance of blooming plants in the fall. 

Those late migrants often find themselves caught in some cold weather up north or in the country's mid-section. They cope with cold by entering torpor, or a state of physical inactivity. During this time, the hummingbird's body temperature drops and heart rate slows. If you find a hummingbird clinging upside down to a feeder, chances are that this bird is in this sleep-like state. 

Who's on the move?

While the eastern portion of the U.S. is familiar with the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and its migration, there are some western hummingbirds making moves to and from breeding grounds.

  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird — The only hummingbird found in the eastern part of the United States and Canada, this bird spends winters in Central America. 

  • Anna's Hummingbird — This western hummingbird is a year round resident to much of the western coastal and southwest regions. Their range expands north for the non-breeding winter season. 
  • Black-chinned Hummingbird — Found mainly in the West and in some parts of Texas, this these birds winter on the western coast of southern Mexico. [3]


  • Allen's Hummingbird (photo from 'Kelli')

    Broad-tailed Hummingbird — This bird enjoys the subalpine regions of the Rocky Mountains for breeding season and travels to the Mexican mountains for the winter. 

  • Rufous Hummingbird — Another western hummingbird, this orange-hued bird migrates to winter grounds in southern Mexico. 

  • Calliope Hummingbird — Spending summers in the mountainous northwest United States, this small hummingbird then migrates to southern Mexico.

  • Costa's Hummingbird — This hummingbird can be found year round on the Baja peninsula and west coast of Mexico and breeds primarily in the deserts of Arizona and California. 

  • Allen's Hummingbird — Another orange hummingbird, this western hummingbird breeds in coastal regions of California and Oregon then travels along the coast to southern Mexico. 

Inviting migrants into the garden

Feeders are a good way to bring the hummingbird activity close to view. Provide feeders in various locations in the yard, using a sugar water mixture. Don't buy the colored mix as it's really not good for the birds. A normal ratio for sugar to water is one cup sugar for every four cups water (1:4). Some offer a stronger solution of 1:3 in the fall. Clean your feeders often as mold builds and can harm the hummingbirds. 

To assist the Ruby-throated Hummingbird along the migration path, plan a garden with some of their favorite flowers (see chart below). Include annuals and long blooming perennials to attract the birds all summer. 

Hummingbirds also enjoy fine mist from a garden hose or water from a trickling fountain. Leaf misters for hoses and irrigation systems alike are available online and at some garden stores. 

Now is the time to enjoy the fall migration of Ruby-throated hummingbirds and also to plan for next year's migration. If you are lucky enough to have visitors all summer, then you will have many plants already and know those most attractive to the birds. In my garden, they love to visit many types of flowers. It is a joy to watch them indulge in a plant that I have put there expressly for them. I just hope they pass the word that the best buffet in town is on all season long in MY garden!



 Hummingbird Plants for Fall — It's Tubular!

Plan now for next year's migration by planting some fall favorites. Here's a short list of plants good for central and northern gardens in the United States. For more information on plants for the whole season, see Operation RubyThroat's Top Ten List of Hummingbird Plants.

Many of the southern plants are grown up north as annuals, but in the south they are powerful attractants. Dave's Garden subscribers can visit HBJoes threads on Hummingbird Super Plants.

Image

Honeysuckle Vine — The tubular flowers of the Lonicera genus are attractive to hummingbirds and bees. In northern gardens, many have a long bloom time, well into the fall. 

Shown: Brown's Honeysuckle (Lonicera x brownii 'Scarlet Dropmore')


Image

Lantana — A tropical plant, this genus is a favorite of both butterflies and hummingbirds. In the north, grow this as an annual or in a pot to take inside.

Shown: Lantana camara 'Bandana Pink'


Trumpet Creeper Campsis radicans, also called trumpet vine, is a vigorous climber full of nectar. It has a downside as it is quite aggressive. Locate it in an area where it can be mowed and held in check.

However, it is another hummingbird magnet that blooms from summer into early fall. It is found in variations of orange, red and yellow.

 


Image

Bee BalmMonarda didyma is not just for the bees! This perennial has tubular clusters of flowers and is found in a number of colors, including the hummingbird favorite, red. 


Butterfly Bush — Commercially available in a variety of colors, the Summer Lilac, or Buddleja davidii is another plant attractive to both butterflies and hummingbirds. (photo from 'dellrose')


Cardinal Flower — As red as it comes! Lobelia cardinalis has a large range (zones 3–10) and comes into bloom in the north for the fall migration. It loves a moist area and can be planted in ponds. Tall and showy, it's tubular red flowers are a beacon for hummingbirds. 

Shown: Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'


Hummingbird Mint — Agastache is a xeric plant with tall spikes of tubular flowers. As its common name suggest, it is a favorite of hummingbirds. 

Shown: Agastache x 'Desert Sunrise'


Annual Vines — In the north and central areas of the U.S., these vines are annuals, which provide nectar sources into the fall. Many are often self-seeding, so think about where you'd like them to be every year. These vines include Cardinal Climber, Cypress Vine, Morning Glory, Purple Hyacinth Bean, Scarlet Runner Bean, Candy Corn Vine.

Shown: Cardinal Climber and Purple Hyacinth Vine (photo from 'dellrose')


Spotted Jewelweed — Another self-seeding annual, this plant likes moist soil in partial shade. According to the learning website, Journey North, Spotted Jewelweed is a critical plant for the Ruby-throat hummingbird fall migration.[4]


Salvia — Where to begin? The sage family is a natural for attracting hummingbirds with their tubular flowers full of nectar. Many salvia are tender perennials of the South, but grown in the North as summer to fall-blooming annuals. Many reseed freely and some are sold as premium nursery plants. Later blooming hardy perennial salvias also welcome fall migrants.

Shown: Texas Sage (Salvia coccinea 'Lady in Red'), Hummingbird Sage (Salvia coccinea 'Nymph Coral'), Blue Anise Sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue Salvia'), Mesa Purple Hybrid Salvia, Salvia splendens

 

 


Cannas — Another wonderful group of tropical plants, Cannas are grown as annuals in the north and central regions but are abundant in non-freezing zones. The canna puts on a show from mid summer to the first hard frost in the north and hummingbirds are frequently seen visiting their flower. (photo from 'melody')

Image

Other Annuals — There are many other annuals with tubular flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds. Petunias, trailing lobelia and fuchsia trailing out of planters bring the hummingbird action up close. Let some of your Coleus bloom or plant some tall Cleome to entice those flying jewels. 

Shown: Trailing purple lobelia, Coleus, Cleome (photo from 'dellrose')

 

 

HBJoe's Hummingbird Super Plant Series

Super Plant #6

Super Plant #5

Super Plant #4

Super Plant #3

Super Plant #2

Super Plant #1

End notes

[1] Hummingbird.net

[2] "Migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds" Wildbird 8(5)42045, B. Hilton Jr.

[3] Cornell Lab of Ornithology

[4] Journey North and their reference article "Fitting the Bill," Natural History, May 1999

 

More reading

Hummingbird Metabolism, Journey North

#

 


  About Marna Towne  
Marna TowneI am one of those fortunate individuals who grew up on rural land that has been in my family for decades. My parents and grandparents were avid gardeners who gladly shared their love of gardening with me. Today I enjoy a small yard in town with my husband, two dogs and a cat who is in charge of us all.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Ribbons may catch their eye Sceloporous 1 2 Oct 1, 2012 5:11 PM
Hummingbird Arrival Dryadii 1 14 Sep 25, 2012 8:55 AM
A host of hummers lilliemax 1 7 Sep 25, 2012 8:54 AM
Flowers PureRose 1 5 Sep 25, 2012 8:53 AM
black&white queen of home and garden cribwinner27 4 33 Feb 22, 2010 9:16 PM
Bees wizz47 2 10 Sep 20, 2009 6:16 PM
Wonderful list of hummer-friendly plants CapeCodGardener 5 41 Sep 17, 2009 12:25 PM
Rubythroated Hummingbirds marycontrarie 1 17 Sep 16, 2009 4:11 PM
Close Encounter DianeEG 3 27 Sep 15, 2009 11:22 PM
ruby throated hummingbirds roseb2c 1 16 Sep 15, 2009 1:41 AM
My hummer story lonestargrl 3 37 Sep 14, 2009 11:41 PM
Ruby Throated Humming Birds WellFedGardener 1 15 Sep 14, 2009 7:40 PM
Hummingbirds patoboyle 1 13 Sep 14, 2009 6:26 PM
hummingbirds Jiny 17 107 Sep 14, 2009 3:20 PM
Great article! pelletory 5 36 Sep 14, 2009 3:18 PM
migration nkicklighter 1 17 Sep 14, 2009 2:26 PM
Ruby Throated Hummingbirds GardenDetectives 1 31 Sep 14, 2009 1:38 PM
Good article! tommyr2006 3 36 Sep 13, 2009 9:40 PM
Rubythroated Hummingbirds txaggiegal 1 34 Sep 13, 2009 9:40 PM
Mystery solved! Rowan_linnea 1 50 Sep 13, 2009 5:38 PM
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