birdnote q&a: your questions answered on hummingbird migration, and flying in formation

broad billed hummingbird by tom greyOUR SECOND IN MY SERIES of answers to your bird questions is about birds on the move: the miracle of hummingbird migration, and when birds fly in large formations, from vee’s to follow-the-leader. Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote, the daily public-radio show I love, will once again be our guide for exploring what’s going on as we look skyward at such highly organized activity.

Remember the BirdNote backstory from last week: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute, seven-day-a-week public-radio “interstitial” (as short programs are called) that recently caught my ear.  I asked BirdNote to help me answer all the recent bird questions you had asked me. (In case you missed it last week, for installment Number 1, we tackled this subject: How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter?)

Parts of Ellen’s answers below are in the 2-minute clips you can stream (all in the green links–or you can read the transcripts of each episode at those links if you prefer). Here we go:

how do hummingbirds do it?

Q. The miracle of hummingbird migration amazes all of us. How do they manage to migrate from the northern United States all the way to Mexico and beyond?

A. The rufous hummingbird flies 49,000,000 times its body-length as it makes its full migration loop.  Other hummingbirds may fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of nearly 600 miles. The birds often follow a “floral highway,” making their way north as the plants that can sustain them come into bloom. From BirdNote, listen to the myths of hummingbird migration.

Rufous hummingbirds begin to turn up in the Pacific Northwest as early as February, when the red-flowering currant begins to bloom. East of the Mississippi, ruby-throated hummingbirds that arrive too early for flowers to be in bloom may raid the sapwells drilled by sapsuckers. True: here’s that story. [The photo up top shows a broad-billed hummingbird on the move; image by Tom Grey.]

when birds fly en masse

Q. There is no sight quite like birds moving in large groups, and A Way to Garden readers asked me about a kettle of hawks; pigeons taking off and maneuvering together again and again as if in some orchestrated dance, and even geese in formation. What gives?

A. Riding thermals is an energy-efficient way for soaring hawks to search for prey. As a Red-tail–or any other soaring hawk–reaches a desired altitude, it slides off the thermal and, gliding lower, finds another thermal to ride upward. Listen to the details of how.

Pigeons actually follow the leader! Like this (the audioclip).

Certain types of larger birds, like geese and pelicans, may fly in a vee-formation. This helps them conserve energy and–because they can see and hear each other better–avoid mid-air collisions. Hear more on that.

next week’s topic, and how to get birdnote

birdnote logoNEXT WEEK’S ANSWERS from among the most popular of 150-plus questions you asked me recently will be about daring bird behavior–drumming on someone’s house, for instance, and also fearlessly mobbing bigger birds, chasing them through the sky.

If you have other bird questions, you may find them in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station why they don’t carry it.

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Thanks for writing about hummingbirds! I find everything about them fascinating, especially the migration and even more so that we’ve had the same hummingbird pair in our yard every year for the past six. We have the ruby-throated kind here in Pennsylvania and the male is unusually dark in color so I can tell it’s the same bird. Amazing that they can travel so far and find their way back again!

    I never know for sure when they’re going to show up (some time in May) but the first one to arrive makes sure to fly near me when I’m out working in the garden to let me know. I often don’t see them again for a few days (nest-scouting or building, I guess) but I know to get the feeders ready.

  2. Martha in Austin TX says:

    Walked out early morning to see if remaining pecans had fallen while I was gone–which they had. Except for one tree. You know how the slant of morning sun peeping over horizon can make some things appear like silver, to glitter or shine a moment of glory. Which dried emptied pecan shells stuck on a tree sometime do. But wait, what is this? That tree didn’t bear much this year, and those shining bits are so large! Shining pearl orbs covered the tree. Then one of them moved slightly. Tilting my head (for a cat-wise point of view) I puzzled out the first Robins, all of them in perfectly aligned stance on the tall silvery tree, their plump breasts turned toward the rising just up sun,. a stunning bright blue sky behind them. I stayed still as a stick admiring the wonder of it all. Then, as all Magical Moments do, in the blink of an eye, by whatever ESP they use, 30-50 Robins simultaneously shot out of the tree, soaring stiff-winged in parallel straight lines to the East. How do they do that!???!!! Humbled by these Huge Exquisite Mysteries. Awesome.

  3. Agnes Carbone says:

    Why do I only see one humming bird in my garden ? I have humming bird feeders and a lovely flower garden , but only one humming bird for the past 2yrs comes Thank You , Agnes

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Agnes. It is mysterious, isn’t it, why some years there are more or less of a particular bird in a given spot. I don’t know if there’s an answer — assuming you’re making a welcoming spot with lots of hummingbird-friendly flowers (tubular ones, especially, in bright color such as red and that grow in the sun…). And very important, that you use no pesticides or other chemicals. Read up here.

  4. christy says:

    I have a Mulberry tree that needs to be cut down. It’s roots are destroying my sewer line. There is at least one hummingbird nest in the tree and several who spend time near the tree. What is the best time of year to remove this tree so that there is as little disruption to the hummingbirds as possible?
    Please let me know what you know, or who I might contact to help.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Christy. Don’t know where you live…or what species you have there. Our hummingbirds here (ruby-throated) migrate starting in September, returning in spring…so any nests here are of no use now. Wouldn’t those be nests from spring/summer that are now not being put to use? Even if you are in a warm zone in the U.S., I don’t think mating season starts till well into winter or early spring. So as I say: these are probably nests that have served their purpose for 2013, no?

  5. christy says:

    Live in Southern California. That absolutely makes sense. Question though, where do the hummingbirds in my yard live? Are the nests only for eggs and chicks?

  6. Pam says:

    Great bird day by my yard feeder yesterday. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, a male and female pair of Cowbirds. While planting some flowers in my front window boxes a Ruby throated Hummingbird stopped for a quick visit eyeing the red Geraniums I was holding. I put up the hummingbird feeder last night and the cute little guy has been coming back to it repeatedly today, even with the nesting Robin carefully watching him from above. I will certainly provide more of your recommended flowers to keep him interested and well fed.

    Thanks for the great info and beautiful photos!


    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Pam. No hummingbirds here yet — I suspect next week they will be back my way. Nice to “meet” you!

  7. Evie Edborg says:

    I need more info. about Hummingbirds….I live in North West Indiana…..Thank you for answering questions I wondered about all these years….thank you….keep giving us that excellent information.

    1. margaret says:

      You’re welcome, Evie. Aren’t they fantastic? I am enjoying all the n=migrating visitors this week and last, hoping for another week or two of visitors.

  8. Alan D says:

    About 5:45 am I saw a formation of hummingbirds fly from the neighbors tree to mine. There were 8 to 10 of them flying 2 by 2 in a row. …much like broken double double lanes on a highway. Never saw that since…is this how they fly in formation normally?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Alan. At this time of year I see crazy, hyperactive little groups in synch that I don’t normally see earlier in the season. I don’t think they technically flock like some other birds do, even during migration, but as individuals find good pit stops along their migration route to feed, they happen upon others of their kind who were attracted to the same spot. Again: That’s what I have read in various places, but I don’t know precisely what the antics are about.

  9. Elizabeth Starewicz says:

    I live in Northwest Indiana and have been enjoying
    the sight of 1-2 hummingbirds to my feeder.
    I planted all sorts of tubular plants that they
    fly to, take nectar from and repeat the process all day. Love it!

  10. John Hansen says:

    I have a male hummingbird that consistently ‘pecks’ at the head of a female and I can’t find out if this is aggression , playful or amorous. He does not do this with all females or with males. Would you have any information about this behaviour?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.