There is something so appealing about watching the tiny little hummingbirds as they feed on flowers and our feeders. Whether you have a large or small yard, hummingbirds can turn any garden into an oasis with their bright colors and curious personalities that make them memorable enough to get your attention even if 100 other things were going on around you!
Oh, sure – some might say I’m fascinated by how much sugar water these tiny birds drink, but what amazes me more than anything else is these tiny creatures’ ability to find specific areas year after year for migration, feeding, and nesting.
Have you ever wondered, do they return to the exact location every year? If so, how? Here in this article, we will cover some aspects of the hummingbirds’ ability to know where and when to travel for food sources and nesting to ensure the best odds of survival.
We all have two things in common for those of us lucky enough to have hummingbirds come to our backyards to feed. First, we love to see them come in the warmer months and hate to see them leave as colder weather approaches.
Do Hummingbirds Return To The Same Place Every Year?
Hummingbirds do return to the same place every year, and they also arrive at the same time every year. “You can set your clock by them.” Well, maybe not exactly, but according to the research and data collected, hummingbirds will arrive within a day or two of the previous year.
They will most certainly be looking for the feeder you hung last year. Hummingbirds remember safe and abundant feeding areas.
Thanks to scientific research over the years, it has been proven that hummingbirds do return to the same place every year. In addition, data collected from “banding” programs has given us an insight into the travels of our small but intelligent friends.
Data collected from bird banding programs show that many hummingbirds visit the same places (feeders) on the same day, year after year. It even shows that male hummingbirds will “claim” the same territory they did the year before.
Females have been observed using the same trees for nesting and, in some cases, re-use their old nest.
Of course, they come back to the same feeder they remember from the previous year. So put your feeders out early and in the same location and look for hummingbirds that have been “banded.”
How To Report The Siteing Of a Banded Hummingbird
While watching your feeder, if you notice one of your hummingbirds with a tiny band around its leg, try to get the band information (number). Unfortunately, this information will not be easy to obtain because of their quickness, and the data, as you can imagine, is extremely small etchings.
But if you are lucky enough to obtain the information, you can report its activity to Bird Banding Laboratory.
How Does Hummingbird Banding Work?
Data that has been collected over time by “professional banders” has proven that hummingbirds return to the same locations year after year. So how does “banding” work?
Here is the description of “banding” according to the National Audobon Society:
“Bird banding is a method of tracking and identifying birds. It involves attaching a small, ring-like band of plastic or metal to a bird’s leg, which can be used to identify the bird. The data gathered from sightings of banded birds helps ornithologists study birds’ migration routes, lifespans and nesting habits.”National Audobon Society
Bird banding is a program that a person must receive training and be licensed; otherwise, you can go to JAIL. THAT IS CORRECT. There is a Law ( Title 50, Chapter 1, Part 10, Subpart 13 – List of Migratory Birds) not to touch, capture, or hold any of the listed species. (which can be viewed at Title 50 Wildlife and Fisheries).
Who Can Be a Hummingbird Bander?
This information comes from the Hummingbird-Guide website.
“Only dedicated trained and licensed persons can band hummingbirds. Anyone who wants to band hummingbirds must obtain a permit from the Bird Banding Laboratory. These permits are usually only awarded to those who are affiliated with an organization or school that has an ornithological program. Licensed hummingbird banders must first train with a licensed bander at a banding location. The candidate must learn every hummingbird species that visits that location. In addition, understanding how to determine the age and sex of the bird is important. Of course, the apprentice needs to learn how to cut and apply the bands. Acquiring the necessary data is a learned skill. Such as “how much does the hummingbird weigh” or “how long is the body” and “how long are the wings”? This data will always be sent to the BBL. So learning how to submit this data is another critical part of the apprenticeship.”The Hummingbird-Guide
How Do Hummingbirds Remember Where To Migrate?
Whether it is leaving or returning, the navigation ability of the hummingbird is not known. Unfortunately, there is no tracking device small enough to use on these tiny marvels. So all we have is “banding” data.
Scientists have educated guesses on how hummingbirds know where and when to migrate, either for the winter or back to their breeding grounds in the spring.
Let’s take a look at some of them:
- Hummingbirds respond to the hours of sunlight, called photoperiod during a certain time of year. They believe the change in daylight releases hormones that let the hummingbird know it is time to migrate.
- Like other bird species, they have substances in their bodies that allow them to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. The would allow them to know which way is north and help steer them to the correct location.
- Or they may have a pineal gland (in their brain) that can use the sun as a compass (sun’s position at certain times of the year and times of day).
- With the memory and recognition capabilities of the hummingbird, they may be able to recall landmarks such as mountains, rivers, coastlines, and even manmade landmarks like highways.
- Scientists can only guess how hummingbirds know when and where to migrate. But with time and data from “professional banders,” we may be able to learn much more about the mystery of their journey.
- Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures, can you imagine tracking them through their whole life cycle- that would be incredible! We can only hope one day this is possible and we will find out more about these birds.
How Do Hummingbirds Remember?
What is the one thing that is the most important for the hummingbird? You got it, FOOD. Knowing they must often eat to survive, remembering food sources is critical. Remembering the source location and eating efficiently is essential for survival (not to waste energy).
So let’s look at one study that revealed the hummingbirds’ ability to remember the what, where, and when of nectar in flowers. It shows hummingbirds know which flower they have visited and how long it takes that particular flower to refill with nectar (so they don’t waste time or energy).
SCIENCEy Stuff to follow:
Included below is a quote (to offer a further explanation of how the hummingbird memory works) from a research article Published by the Royal Society conducted by Rachael E. Marshall, T. Andrew Hurly, Jenny Sturgeon, David M. Shuker, and Susan D. Healy.
“The ability of animals to remember the what, where and when of a unique past event is used as an animal equivalent to human episodic memory.” “We tested this hypothesis by training hummingbirds to a memory task, where the location of a reward was specified according to colour (what), location (where), and order and time of day (when). Although hummingbirds remembered these three pieces of information together more often than expected, there was a hierarchy as to how they were remembered. When seemed to be the hardest to remember, while errors relating to what were more easily corrected. Furthermore, when appears to have been encoded as a combination of time of day and sequence information. As hummingbirds solved this task using reconstruction of different memory components (what, where and when), we suggest that similar deconstructive approaches may offer a useful way to compare episodic and episodic-like memories.”Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Dec 7; 280(1772): 20132194. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2194
SCIENCEy stuff over, for now.
Amazing stuff, right? I can say for sure that hummingbirds have better memories than most of us reading this article (for sure me). Can you imagine keeping track of exactly which flower, out of a massive cluster of flowers, that you drank from and exactly when you can go back for the refill? Very impressive.
If you have never witnessed their memory in action, relocate a feeder (not too far) in your backyard and watch. You will notice the hummingbird come back to the old location looking for the feeder. This searching also happens when you take the feeder down to clean and refill it.
Don’t worry; their memory also allows them to recognize if something is new or out of place in the area, and they will zoom over to investigate and then add its new location to their memory.
Memory of Objects
Hummingbirds are very curious about objects or people in their environment. They zoom around, investigating all things new, different, or out of place. The memory of where objects are located helps them avoid collisions during their high-speed pursuit of other hummingbirds.
Unfortunately, sometimes they can make mistakes and collide with a recently moved car or object in the yard. When a collision occurs, they may injure themselves, or the crash can be fatal. Therefore, they need to remember where everything is located to avoid injury or death when it comes to their surroundings.
Memory of People
You want to be the one who refills the nectar. Hummingbirds do show signs of remembering people. (Especially the one who feeds them). This recognition can only be a result of their memory.
Check out some people’s stories; they will amaze you. The stories can be found on http://www.worldofhummingbirds.com/stories.php.
The After Knowledge
Can you remember the question that we asked at the beginning of this article? If not, you do not have a memory like a hummingbird.
We wanted to know if a hummingbird returns to the same place every year, for us that don’t remember. Can you believe the talents that a hummingbird possesses? I have to use a GPS (Global Positioning System) just about all the time.
Although we don’t know anything, for sure, about how hummingbirds migrate and find specific locations, we do have data collected from the banding programs that let us know “our hummingbirds” will be back next year, so we need to be ready.