How Do They Find Their Way Back?
Hummingbird Navigation

Your Very Own Hummers?
We've noticed something interesting in your reports over the years. Many of you say things like this: "This hummer was one of 'ours' because he hovered everywhere that a feeder hung last year." Do hummingbirds really return to the same spot each spring? If you were a tiny hummer, how could you find one tiny feeder on a thousand mile journey? Read on!

They Do Return!
Ruby-throated hummingbirds live surprisingly long lives for such tiny creatures with a long and difficult migration. One banded rubythroat was recorded surviving at least 9 years. But most live about 3 or 4 years.

Our observers were right. Most of these birds DO return to the same feeders or gardens to breed year after year. What's more, they often stop at the same spots along the way and arrive on the same date! Not bad for birds with brains no bigger than a grain of rice.

Professional banders working for many years figured this out by gathering data over time. They began to notice banded birds showing up at the same sites year after year.

The real puzzle is HOW these creatures of habit 1.) remember where they had a great meal 8 months earlier, and then, 2.) navigate right to that spot. What do you think?

What Scientists Think
Scientists are still baffled about exactly how hummers home in on home. (After all, the birds are too small to track with transmitters.) But they conduct research on other birds, and review other scientists' findings. The conclusion: Hummingbirds have a mixed bag of tricks! They migrate by instinct, but their bodies and the environment help them steer course. Scientists think that hummingbirds may do these things:

  • Respond to photoperiod (the number of hours of sunlight) at a certain time of year. This releases hormones that "tell" hummers its time to go.

  • Cue into the Earth's magnetic field. Like some other birds, they may have substances in their bodies that can sense the magnetic field. By knowing which way is north, they are better able to steer.

  • Use the sun as a "compass." They use the sun's position in the sky -- and where it is at different times of day -- to stay on course. (Scientists think the pineal gland on the tops of birds' brains is sensitive to light.)

  • Notice and recall landmarks such as rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, and even highways.

  • Some scientists wonder whether birds even use their senses of smell and hearing to locate familiar places! There are always more questions in science. That's what makes it so exciting . . .

Journaling and Discussion Questions

  • What did you learn from this about how scientists investigate questions?

  • Imagine you are a hummer heading north to return to your schoolyard. As you get close to the town, what landmarks will you use to help you find that fantastic feeding and breeding ground? Make a drawing.