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Hummingbird Migration

Dear Bird Folks,

For most of the summer I’ve had three hummingbirds battling over my feeder, but I haven’t seen them for a few days. Do you think my hummingbirds have left and if so, should I take the feeder down?

– Glenn, Halifax, MA


Yes and not necessarily, Glenn,

Yes, your hummingbirds have likely left, but that doesn’t mean you need to take the feeder down. Why is that, you wonder? Even though “your” birds have headed south, there’s a chance other hummers will visit your feeder on their travels. Spotting a filled feeder is a treat for late migrants. The birds probably get just as excited about it as we do when we’re on a road trip and spot a Howard Johnson’s. (I know HoJos aren’t a thing anymore, but I was feeling nostalgic. Sorry.)

As most of you know, hummingbirds are extremely territorial. Once a territory has been established, any usurping hummers are going to be immediately dealt with. Hummingbirds may be small, but they are lightning fast, their beaks are super-pointy and their disposition, towards each other, is plain ugly. In addition, a defending hummingbird isn’t happy just to push the intruder off the feeder; it will chase the interloper into the next zip code. These feeder battles last for most of the summer, but as the season winds down and the population thins out, so do the confrontations. The adult males are the first to leave, as they have nothing to do with the breeding process (except for one small detail). The female will be the next to leave, followed shortly by her kids. It’s ironic that large powerful birds, such as Canada Geese, fly to their wintering grounds in well-defined flocks, while the tiny hummers travel alone. (That will teach them to be so grumpy.)

For most of the summer, the clashes at my hummingbird feeder were a daily occurrence. Then one day everything was quiet. There were no more conflicts and no more hummers. Even so, I kept my feeder out and one morning I woke up to find a single bird gulping down homemade nectar. Had one of “my” hummingbirds returned for some reason? I doubt it. (There’s only so much of me they can take.) The more likely explanation is that this solitary bird is one of the millions that are migrating right now. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds breed as far north as Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes. The bird sitting on my Cape Cod feeder could have actually started its journey in Halifax, but not your Halifax, Glenn. I’m talking about the one in Nova Scotia, with the maple leaves and the metric road signs.

Songbirds tend to be nocturnal migrants, covering hundreds of miles at night when the air is calmer. This is not how hummers do it. Instead, they sleep at night, just like the rest of us. In the morning, after an early breakfast, they continue on their way. And, again, unlike songbirds, they don’t fly for hundreds of miles at a clip. Their pace is much slower, flying just above the tops of trees, constantly stopping whenever they spot a food source. One of the clues that a hummingbird is on migration is its behavior. My summer hummer would zip onto the feeder for a quick drink, before flying up to its favorite perch (a nearby pitch pine), where it would preen and stand guard, ready to attack any intruders. The hummingbirds I’m seeing right now don’t do any of that. When their meal is over, they don’t fly to the pitch pine, but instead they fly over it, towards the horizon – the southern horizon, and beyond.

As with most migrating birds, the impulse to leave is triggered by the length of day and assorted other stimuli. Hummingbirds also time their migration around the blooming of jewelweed. Jewelweed, with its orange orchid-shaped blossoms, thrives throughout much of North America. I’m not sure if “jewel weed” is an oxymoron or not, but even if it is, the hummingbirds don’t care. They depend on the blossoms for the nectar, and the plants depend on the hummers for pollination. It’s nice how the two have worked things out.

Sometimes folks are concerned that our feeders will prevent hummingbirds from migrating. They wonder why a bird would fly thousands of miles when there is food around. I guess that makes a little sense…but not really. Oh, sure, when the hummers leave Halifax, MA (or Halifax, NS), there is still plenty of natural food, but soon it will be gone and the birds know it (or some part of their instinct knows it). Occasionally, a very late hummingbird will show up at a feeder. This always makes the news and grabs lots of attention. However, the feeder didn’t prevent the bird from migrating. This lost bird had other issues and the feeder only kept it alive…at least for a little while.

Feeders left out this time of year, Glenn, may attract late migrants. You certainly can keep your feeder out as long as you want, but keep it fresh and clean, just as you would in the summer. Amazingly, migrating birds will remember the feeder next spring, and if it’s dirty, they’ll remember that, too, and won’t stop. You could also plant some jewelweed. I’ve read it’s easy to grow. Just remember, when you ask for jewelweed, emphasize the word “jewel,” or you might end up with a different kind of weed, the kind of weed that’ll make you wish Howard Johnson’s was still open.