Hummingbirds Come Back to East Lansing

Wednesday, May 9, 2018, 7:47 am
By: 
Aron Sousa

Above: Photograph by ELi's Ken Sperber of a hummingbird in West Virginia.

Early May is usually when ruby-throated hummingbirds return to East Lansing after spending the winter in Central America and Mexico. In most years, ruby-throated hummingbirds reach East Lansing in the first week of May, and this past week there have been a few sightings listed on hummingbird tracking websites.

As East Lansing is in the ruby-throateds’ breeding range, some will spend the summer here building nests and raising young before heading back south to their winter range in August or September. The migration is a big deal for a very small bird. They are well known for their astonishing wing speed and precision, but they are also remarkable distance fliers.

So how did the birds coming to East Lansing get here from Central America and Mexico? Some migrate north over Mexico to Texas and then up into the eastern U.S., stopping daily along the way to feed on nectar. The rest of the birds make a mad, 500-mile, 20-hour, non-stop trek over the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, Louisiana or Florida in early March. Then they fly north.

Flying over the Gulf of Mexico is a faster and shorter trip than going over Mexico, but without food and shelter, it can be a very difficult trip for the 3-inch birds. Ruby-throats generally weigh less than a quarter of an ounce (2-6 grams). It is common for the birds to lose half of their body weight during their Gulf crossing.

The males tend to leave their winter homes a few days before females and will fight for breeding territory before the females arrive. It is not known why some birds choose the overland migration while others cross the Gulf, but a faster trip might help in competing for territory and mates.

The ruby-throated is the only hummingbird in eastern North America. Its full breeding range extends from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean and from Florida to Ontario.

You can attract hummingbirds to your East Lansing yard with flowering plants, although the birds also eat some small insects especially for feeding their young. Hummingbird feeders also attract the birds. Feeders are usually filled with sugar-water solution (4-parts water to 1-part sugar) and should be cleaned a couple of times a week to keep mold from spoiling the feeder.