LEAVING SO SOON? That’s the lament for hummingbird-lovers (and who isn’t one?), as summer fades and the tiny creatures often move along southward. Ellen Blackstone of the popular BirdNote public-radio show is our guide again as we look skyward in this latest installment in our collaborative series: the story of hummingbird migration.
First off, Ellen wants to share—and dispel–a charming hummingbird myth: that hummingbirds hitchhike on the backs of larger birds during migration. “Not true,” she says, “but it’s an amusing image, isn’t it?” (Artist Jennifer Pope let us publish a depiction, below, of what such a collaboration might look like.) More on that tale and other hummingbird-migration myths in the BirdNote archive.)
hummingbird migration: a q&a with ellen blackstone
IN THE Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily.
Q. What’s going on with hummingbirds this time of year? I have so many at this time each year in my Northeastern garden (all ruby-throateds, I think, though none at the moment have the red throat marking of males like some did earlier on).
A. You’re correct: Right now, some parts of the country have even more hummingbirds than usual, with some summer visitors still hanging around and migrants, on their way south, just showing up as they pass through.
Most of the rufous hummingbirds of the West (like the one in the top photo) are heading southward. In fact, many of the males left as early as July or early August. Females and juveniles leave a little later. Although they follow a “floral highway” in both directions, their fall migration is quite different from their spring route. In spring, they move northward up the Pacific Coast, in time with the blossoming of flowering plants. In late summer and early autumn, most move down the Rocky Mountains, savoring late summer’s mountain wildflowers. (Some, however, may swing so wide as to end up on the East Coast, so keep a lookout for them!)
Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the ones you’ll see east of the Great Plains like in your garden, Margaret, are also on the move. The male ruby-throats–like almost all other male hummers–took off in July and August.
should i feed hummingbirds, and what months?
Q. A lot of gardeners put up hummingbird feeders during the garden season, I know. How long do you leave the feeders out, ideally?
A. Most experts agree that you can leave the feeder up for a while longer. Some ruby-throats don’t migrate until October. Leave it out a week or two after you see the last hummingbird, just in case there are stragglers.
Audubon now suggests that people in the Southeastern United States leave their feeders up until December, nourishing those last few migrants.
There’s no need to feel guilty that feeding hummers will lure them away from their natural sources of nourishment or keep them from migrating. The birds will continue to consume a healthy balance of plant nectar, small insects, and sap. Hummingbirds need insects for protein, and when the number of insects begins to wane, the hummingbirds start to disappear, too.
But some hang around! The Audubon Christmas Bird Count has found Anna’s hummingbirds farther and farther north over the last few decades. (That’s a female Anna’s on a feeder, above.) Lucky gardeners and hummingbird lovers in the West and Northwest can leave their feeders up all year and expect visitors.
And luckiest of all, South Texas and Southern Arizona boast more than a dozen species of hummingbirds during the summer, with a few lingering through the winter. Late summer/early fall is the best time to see the hummingbird spectacle in Arizona, when migrants and residents overlap. Now, that many hummingbirds could drink a lot of sugar water.…
how do i make homemade ‘nectar’?
Q. OK, you mentioned sugar water—and even though it’s not prime time and the feeding season is waning in many areas, can you share the recipe for the homemade version?
A. For the record, here’s the recipe: Dissolve completely one part white table sugar in four parts warm or boiling water. No honey or sugar substitutes, please. And no red food coloring. Clean the feeder frequently, especially in hot weather, or if you see the liquid is cloudy or the feeder has dark spots growing on it. Making those little powerhouses sick is worse than not feeding them at all. Bon appétit, hungry hummingbirds!
more about hummingbirds: getting involved
Q. Are there hummingbird-specific projects I can participate in, or places I can go for more information that you recommend?
A. If you haven’t yet done so–and before you forget–consider signing up for Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home project and report your hummingbird summer. This citizen-science project will help scientists understand how climate change, the timing of flowering, and feeding by people are affecting hummingbirds.
And if you’d like to find out what hummingbird is being seen in your area at the moment, check out eBird.
how to get birdnote
Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.
The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!
past installments of our series
IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote:
- Week 1: How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter?
- Week 2: hummingbird migration, and on flying in formation.
- Week 3: on daring behavior, such as when a mob of small birds chase after a bigger one, or a woodpecker drums on a house.
- Week 4: whether birds mate for life, and how long they live.
- Week 5: What senses birds of prey use to hunt.
- Week 6: Bird houses, or nest boxes.
- Week 7: Bird songs and calls! What you’re hearing.
- Week 8: The complex nests of songbirds.
- Week 9: Crow, or raven?
- Week 10: The biggest bird nests of all.
- Week 11: Fledging, when young leave the nest.
- Week 12: Why the “dawn chorus” quiets in midsummer
(Photo credits: Rufous hummingbird, top photo, © Mike Yip; Hummingbird CoPilot © Jennifer Pope www.jpopstudios.com; Calliope hummingbird, © Tom Grey; Anna’s hummingbird female on feeder © Mike Hamilton. All used with permission, courtesy of BirdNote.)