By mid to late October I usually start getting inquiries as to how long into the fall hummingbird feeders should be left up and stocked. I think the question that is really being asked is “when do hummingbirds leave the area?”
The answer: hummingbirds never actually leave the southern Piedmont. Yes, the breeding ruby-throated hummingbirds are mostly gone by late October, with a very few stragglers trying to make it longer. Rufous hummingbirds, and possibly some other western hummingbird species, are arriving to spend the winter in the southeastern United States at the same time the ruby-throateds are departing. I recommend leaving the feeders up all year round.
These western species are fully capable of surviving through the Piedmont winter. Some nest up into Alaska and high elevations in the mountain west so they are used to cold temperatures. Some of them are likely here right now, undetected. But not for long now. Any hummingbird still present in our area after November first is very likely to be something other than a ruby-throated hummingbird.
Now with temperatures hovering five to 10 degrees above normal and the weather being relatively benign, it could be that some ruby-throated stragglers are indeed remaining. But if you are still seeing a hummingbird at your feeders, or know of someone who is, try to get a photo and send it to me. If that won’t work, still let me know via email. I like to check out any lingering hummingbird in case it is something rare (or super-rare).
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Don’t worry about delaying the birds’ migration by leaving a feeder up. Migration is triggered by the length of daylight, not food availability. If that was true all those hummingbirds crowding our feeders in August would still be here. Western species of hummingbirds are migrating to our area with the expectation of finding a suitable habitat to spend the next four to five months.
So refill or freshen the feeders and keep an eye on the sugar-water level. Some birds may be living off natural food right now but once the weather turns they will move to an available feeder. And don’t forget to let me know about any visitors you see.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com