For the Birds: When to stop feeding hummingbirds, or not

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.

A question from Lida in Harrisville came in the other day that I found interesting for two reasons. The question was: “What is the current thinking on when to stop feeding hummingbirds?”

She recalled a time when it was suggested that people stop feeding hummingbirds in August so that the birds would be encouraged to fly south. She added that her feeders remained active with lots of hummingbirds.

The question at face value is interesting because I’m sure it is on a lot of people’s minds now that summer unwinds and fall looms. The question is also interesting because it got me thinking about how opinions change over time depending on knowledge available. This is true for birdwatching and any aspect of life, really.

In the birdwatching world, for instance, the names of bird species change fairly regularly. Long-tailed ducks were oldsquaws not too long ago. Rufous-sided towhees are now eastern towhees. Dark-eyed juncos are either one species with different forms or several individual species, depending on the current thoughts of ornithologists.

It was once taught to never touch a baby bird because the parent will smell human scent and reject the youngster. While it’s true that it is usually best to not touch a baby bird because the parent is likely nearby, a mother bird will not reject a bird because it has human scent on it.

It was once thought that birds are unintelligent, hence the term “bird brain.” Well, we all know that’s not true now.

Now back to the question at hand: When should we stop feeding hummingbirds? Coincidentally, a recent issue of Birds and Blooms magazine addressed this very topic in a myth-buster type of article featuring its bird and garden experts.

The magazine’s bird experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, wrote that hummingbirds will fly south when they are ready, regardless of whether there are feeders available or not. The Kaufmans wrote that the powerful instinct to migrate is much stronger than a backyard hummingbird feeder. They wrote to “feel free” to keep feeders up as long as there are hummingbirds around.

Given that a hummingbird’s natural instinct is to fly south when the time is right, I would offer a reason to keep filling your hummingbird feeder for as long as possible. Hummingbirds need a lot of energy to make their long journey to Central America. A quick fill-up at New England backyard feeder or garden can give the birds a nice head start on their arduous adventure — just like most people fill up their cars before heading out on a vacation.

Also, let’s say a hummingbird is injured or otherwise unable to fly south when their instincts tell them to do so. A reliable food source while the bird waits out the delay could be important to the bird’s survival.

As of this weekend, I still have my share of ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the feeder, canna, salvia and fading geraniums. It’s good to hear from the experts that feeding them is not disrupting their natural behaviors.

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3 thoughts on “For the Birds: When to stop feeding hummingbirds, or not

  1. I leave the hummer feeders up until I haven’t seen activity in a few days. My locals may have left, but migraters from farther north sometimes stop by for a rest and use the feeders, as well as any flowers still blooming in my gardens, to power up.

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