birdnote q&a: hummingbird migration

Rufous hummingbird © Mike YipLEAVING 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 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 CoPilot © Jennifer Pope www.jpopstudios.com

hummingbird migration: a q&a with birdnote

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.

Calliope hummingbird, by Tom Grey. The calliope hummingbird, above, smallest of all hummers on the North American continent, is headed to Mexico for the winter, after spending the summer as far north as British Columbia and Alberta.

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.

Anna's Hummingbird female on feeder © Mike Hamilton

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

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime 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:

(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.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. The Rufous have started south so they are gone, the other hummingbirds in our area are the Anna’s Hummingbirds. I have set out the feeders and they seem to be having a great fall. I follow these creatures so I really enjoyed the podcasts that I could get to from your post.

  2. ellen says:

    This was good timing since all weekI have noticed quite a few ruby-throated hummingbirds on the remaining dragonflower and bee balm.
    They seem quite busy and happy!

  3. Diana Pappas says:

    We’ve had a pair of ruby-throated hummingbirds nesting nearby for the last two summers and they have been a delight to see in the garden. We’ve been as close as a foot away and have had some amazing encounters with them! Our neighbor across the street has a hummingbird feeder and she wonders why she doesn’t see hummingbirds – the answer is that they have been feasting on our trumpet vine, phlox, salvia, and monarda!

  4. Lorie says:

    What an absolute blessing this year…5 pairs of hummers!! The “wars” before migrating are a sight to see. Joe Pye and asclepias are magnets. I swear one hummer recognizes me as she hovers over my head when I’m filling feeders, and she hovers in front of the puppy’s nose when he is on the deck. It’s a priceless gift.

  5. Leslie says:

    Last fall and winter, I had a wayward female rufous hummingbird vacationing in my garden. An uncommon occurance, as i live in north western Connecticut. The local bird expert was so intigued, he came to my home to positively identify it as a rufous. The adorable little bird stayed with me until January of this year. I was battling the elements trying to keep the sugar water from freezing so as to keep the little bird alive. After a particularly bitter cold snap, it vanished. I hope she flew home and did not succumb to the elements.

  6. William Bown says:

    A lot of us in Georgia leave up feeders all winter. Here in the southern part of the state, we have winter hummers each year that are often caught and banded by licensed banders. We had our first one 21 years ago! Two were caught this past January while a third one was to smart to be captured. They have caught the same bird for eight straight years in Georgia and many others multiple years also. They are usually breeds that aren’t common to the east with the most common being the rufous. It’s Our first one was a black-chinned.

  7. john connery says:

    This summer I set up a feeder and psyched to see it used. Then one day I saw a big cluster of bees on it and it was drained within the day. Mind you, I keep bees and want to continue to, but is there peace to be had at the feeder, or do I have to give it up and just let the garden do all the feeding??

  8. mary murfitt says:

    I live in Columbia County, New York State. In past summers my hummingbirds have arrived and departed like clockwork. Arriving on or about May 8th and leaving about Oct. 10th. They arrived on time this year but I haven’t seen but one or two over the last 2-3 weeks. About a month ago they were swarming the feeders like I’d never seen. Are they migrating early this year?

    1. margaret says:

      The adult males leave extra-early, Mary, as I understand it — like I think even perhaps in August. The one we see later in the season are not the same ones that were here in the garden in spring/summer — they are momentary visitors moving south gradually from various points north. So some years you get more visitors stopping by than others.

  9. kate says:

    We’ve got Anna’s & rufous both here now just north of Seattle. I’ll feed our winter population under a 150 watt bulb to keep their sugar water from freezing as it gets colder. I keep 1 feeder under the bulb so the early birds have a source of energy. The other 2 feeders come in @ night to prevent freezing. For now its crocosmia & verbena bonariensis that they love the best- & of course fushias, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, delphiniums, salvia hot lips. They are social critters. I had one come to join a group of our friends as we stood talking in the driveway. He hovered @ the side of our circle chirping as if to join the conversation. Great fun!

  10. Judy Hines says:

    Gardening chores, as Margaret would say, need completed but watching the hummingbirds on the feeder take precedence. Judy Hines in Illinois

  11. Sallie Rynd says:

    I have a pair of hummers each summer who enjoy cuphea, monarda, nicotiana , phox and fushias in our garden. I was touched this year in particular as our first sighting of the year was on Mother’s Day at my kitchen window. I lost my Mom this year and we both enjoyed the hummingbirds so much.

  12. Bill says:

    I haven’t had much luck attracting hummingbirds except during the summer migration.Every year, like clockwork, during the second week of August two or three hummingbirds arrive. Their stay is brief and then they move on. It wouldn”t be summer without them.

  13. Char says:

    I have a young hummer that is nesting. How long before the young are fledged? I was surprised she was nesting so late. I live in Central Utah and am concerned that it’s so late in the season. Winter comes early in the mountains. Should I worry?

    1. margaret says:

      Cornell Lab of Ornithology says Ruby-throated incubation is about 2 weeks, and nestling stage is up to 3. Info here. (Yours may be Anna’s or another species, I don’t know.) As for whether it’s too late or not, I just always figure with nature that it takes its own course and we are simply observers (usually watching in awe!). Nothing to do but hope for a good outcome.

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