Leave Hummingbird Feeders Up for Fall Migration

Over the next several weeks, our hummingbird numbers will begin to drastically decline as they leave for their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Growing up, I always heard that you should take your hummingbird feeders down in the fall so you don’t encourage the hummingbirds to stick around too long. I still occasionally hear this. However, it is untrue.

Leaving hummingbird feeders up until 2-3 weeks after you see your last hummingbird gives late migrants a potentially important source of food once the fall flowers begin to fade. Photo credit: Pete Markham, cc-by-sa 2.0

Scientific research shows that the hummingbirds’ migration south is triggered by day length. So as the days become shorter, it is the hummingbirds’ internal clock, not its stomach, that says “Ok, it’s time to go.” Whether or not there is still food around, plays very little role in determining when the migration begins. This is evidenced by the fact that the adult males begin migrating a month or more before the females and young of the year. Many of the adult males we are seeing now are northern migrants, and not the same individuals who have been here all summer.

Hummingbirds need a steady supply of energy throughout their migration. Leaving your hummingbird feeders up and making sure they stay filled can supplement the nectar they are finding naturally from our fall blooming flowers. The feeders can become especially important for late migrants. Having access to the feeders won’t stop them from migrating, but may give them the extra energy they need to make it further south once the fall flowers begin to disappear. It is recommended that you keep your feeders up until 2-3 weeks after you see your last hummingbird in order to accommodate those late migrants.

Typically, the last of the ruby-throated hummingbirds have passed through Kentucky by the end of October. Our friends to the north will lose their hummingbirds sooner, while our friends to the south will have them a little longer. You can watch the hummingbird migration, and even contribute your own sightings, on the Journey North’s Hummingbird webpage. However, keep your eyes open even after the ruby-throated hummingbirds have migrated through your area.

A growing number of western hummingbirds, in particular rufous hummingbirds and Allen’s hummingbirds, have started overwintering in the eastern U.S. There are still lots of questions about this phenomenon. Many years ago at our old house, we had a hummingbird show up in our yard in November. It had been weeks since we took down our hummingbird feeders, but we quickly put them back up and contacted the Kentucky Ornithological Society. Our bird was eventually identified as a female rufous hummingbird and she stuck around for most of the winter. If you do see a really late hummingbird, be sure to contact your state’s Ornithological Society. If you aren’t sure who to contact, contact me and I’ll try to help you find the right person.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

Leave a comment

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.