It’s fall, and along with the abrupt end to carefree summer days, the leaves are beginning to turn, the air is a little cooler, days are shorter and there seems to be a general slowing down as nature approaches its winter hibernation. To be more precise, everything seems to be slowing except the busy hummingbirds that are feverishly preparing for the long journey to their winter homes.
Hummingbird migration is triggered by hormonal changes within their bodies, which are set off by the changes in the length of daylight. When the days get shorter, the hummers know the time is nearing when they will take flight for warmer climates. Where a hummingbird migrates depends on the individual species of hummingbird, but the majority winter in Mexico. Some will remain as far north as southern California or Florida and some journey as far south as Panama. Whatever their winter destination, hummingbirds have to prepare in advance of their journey by packing themselves full of nectar and insects.
That’s where we hummingbird lovers come in. If you have ever had a hummingbird feeder you know how aggressive and persistent these little guys can get as fall approaches. After a summer of making nectar and washing feeders several times a week, it’s easy to get complacent, but this is the time our fair-feathered friends need us the most.
The energy required to support a hummingbird’s high level of activity is remarkable. It is estimated that hummingbirds consume more than one and a half times their body weight in fluids and nectar each day. Only about 10 percent of the hummingbird’s food comes from insects and spiders. They require regular feedings at around ten-minute intervals, between which they go into a state of torpor or rest to allow the food time to digest, and their need for food extends past full daylight into dusk and before dawn.
From the last half of September, through early October, hummingbirds are getting ready for their migration. We can help by making sure that we keep fresh nectar out for them to feed on, especially if we have been feeding them all summer. It is believed that some species of hummingbirds require significant increases in body weight prior to venturing on their long migrations. These increases can be as much as 60 percent for the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, 50 percent for the Anna’s Hummingbird, and a remarkable 100 percent for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Most commercial hummingbird nectar is simple sugar (with a little coloring and an additive to prevent fermentation), which can be mixed with boiling water. The coloring is unnecessary, since hummers are attracted to the scent of the nectar, and you can prevent fermentation by changing the food often. To prepare your own hummingbird food, heat a mixture of one part sugar and four parts drinking water. Simmer the mixture for a couple of minutes to kill bacteria and chemicals. When it has cooled, store any unused food in a clean container in the refrigerator. Make only enough for a few days. Change the nectar regularly and thoroughly clean all containers every two to three days.
If you are wondering when you need to take down your feeder in the fall, you may be surprised. Some people are concerned that if you leave a feeder up the little birds will stick around delaying their migration, but this is not the case. When the days are short enough and their tummies are full enough they will go. There is no need to worry that you’re keeping them around. It’s actually a good idea to keep the feeder up well into fall for the opposite reason. Even though the hummingbirds that frequented your feeder all summer may have left already, migrating birds from farther north may use your feeder for a quick pit stop on their way south.
Enjoy the last of the hummingbird season by helping them “pack” for their trip. You’ll probably notice their absence around the feeder some time in early October, but don’t despair. They are just on a tropical vacation and they’ll be back in the spring to enjoy your hospitality again.