One of my favorite websites to visit each spring shows a map of the spring return of ruby-throated hummingbirds to the eastern United States. Observers submit records of sightings of the hummers, and each is mapped as a dot with the observation date. You can watch the dots spread into the United States from southern Texas in late February to southern Missouri by late March. As I look at the latest map today, there are several reports from central Missouri, ranging in time from March 27 to April 1. Surprisingly, a few birds reached the Chicago vicinity as quickly as others reached mid-Missouri, after surging northward through Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. It makes me wonder why the rush to reach that area. The migration will eventually reach southern Canada, where the northernmost nesting occurs.
Even though the hummingbirds have already been sighted in mid-Missouri, where I am located, I have yet to see one. It is usually a couple more weeks after the first arrivals before I see my first hummer. I’m sure the majority of the birds lag behind those earliest travelers documented by dots on the map. My personal first observation usually happens when my red buckeye is in flower in my backyard. That shrub’s long, red, tubular flowers contain nectar that always attracts the hummers. They also visit the red and yellow blooms of columbine that blooms at about the same time. Both plants are now a couple of weeks shy of flowering, by my estimation.
As I sit in my office on a cool, gray day when spring’s progress seems to be temporarily on hold, it is reassuring to view the map of an ongoing natural migration that has occurred in thousands of springs before this one. It’s an important reminder that the old forces are still at work in the natural world, following cues that we have missed amid the thousand distractions of daily life.
Here are a few fun facts about the ruby-throated hummingbird: