Hummingbird Migration Can Mean Flying 2,000 Miles Without a Break

By: Christopher Hassiotis & Zach Taras  | 
red-throated hummingbird, bird migration, flight
Scientists have made surprising discoveries about the distance the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) can fly without stopping. Tibor Nagy/Flickr

Chances are, you've been lucky enough to see a hummingbird in the wild. Given their size, their ultra-fast wing speed (which has to burn some serious energy), you might not imagine that hummingbird migration is all that significant. Well, consider the following scenario.

See that ruby-throated hummingbird sitting on a branch in the picture above? Let's say the branch is on a mimosa tree, and let's say that mimosa tree is located in Atlanta, Georgia. And it's hummingbird migration season. Suddenly, the small, iridescent bird takes to the air, with wings beating an average of about 50 times per second.


If it flew as far as it possibly could without stopping, where do you think it would land? On the other side of the city? Or could that little ruby-throated hummingbird make it all the way to Alabama or Tennessee, all in one flight?

Guess again, but think farther — much, much farther.


Hummingbirds Can Be Long-distance Flyers

New research published in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances shows that the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) can fly approximately 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) without taking a break. That's like flying nonstop from Atlanta to Albuquerque, from Beirut to Budapest, or from Tokyo to Taipei.

Female ruby-throated hummingbirds lack the red marking that gives the species its name.
Kelly Colgan Azar/Flickr

While that's an impressive distance to fly without a break, when it comes to total range, it's not the farthest.


No, among migrating hummingbirds, the species with the longest migration route is the rufous hummingbird. Rufous hummingbirds will travel 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) on average, from their winter homes in southern Mexico (where they hide from the cold temperatures in their breeding ground) to as far north as southeastern Alaska, along the Pacific coast.

In fact, the standing record for hummingbird migration patterns, as far as long distance is concerned, goes to a rufous hummingbird that was recorded as traveling a whopping 3,500 miles (5,633 kilometers)!

This far-flying bird species can be found just east of the Rocky Mountains, and all along the gulf coast, although they're more common on the west coast.


Some Hummingbirds Are Homebodies

Not all hummingbird species are as well-traveled as ruby-throated hummingbirds and rufous hummingbirds. By comparison, Anna's hummingbird is an unambitious traveler. They basically stick close to their natural habitat, which ranges from northern Baja Mexico to the Pacific Northwest.


Studying Hummingbirds and How Far They Fly

Every fall the birds migrate from the eastern U.S. all the way to Central America.

During the seasonal migrations from 2010 to 2014, the University of Southern Mississippi researchers behind the Auk study captured 2,729 individual hummingbirds as they migrated through southern Alabama. The scientists tracked the birds' habits and measured their flight, then analyzed mass and wingspan and used a computer program to predict flight range.


Scientists have since learned the ruby-throated hummingbird migrates across the Gulf of Mexico, traveling over the large body of water without stopping.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird Size

Full-grown specimens of the ruby-throated hummingbird usually measure about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) long, meaning they can fly a mind-boggling 29 million times the length of their body in one go.

Relative to human body size, that'd be like Superman leaping into the air and taking one-and-a-half trips around the globe before landing, traveling 33,000 miles (53,000 kilometers).


Since the ruby-throated hummingbird is among the most common hummingbirds in North America, its likely you've encountered one before. They can be found across the eastern United States, where their breeding grounds are, and up to southern Canada.

Helping Hummingbirds With Their Journeys

If you want to help out a rufous hummingbird on her spring migration, or to attract hummingbird species in general, there are some easy steps you can take. Of course, hummingbird feeders are an obvious choice, although they need to be regularly replenished to be effective (cleaning the feeders is also essential, as they can grow pathogens that can be very harmful to your little buzzy friends).

The best and most beautiful option is to plant native plants. Check what hummingbird species you're likely to find in your area, and then look up what kind of spring flowers they like to sip nectar from. You can then order the correct plants, or look for a local nursery that specializes in plants native to your area.