For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Hummingbirds in Autumn

Original Air Date: Sept. 19, 1988

The rule never to feed hummingbirds after Labor Day is FALSE.

Duration: 3′30″


(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

Newspapers and TV nature shows have recently been spreading a false rumor, that people should never feed hummingbirds after Labor Day. From Marty Stauffer to a nature writer at the Washington Times, these warnings have sounded like they’re based on expert opinions, but the whole issue is completely unfounded. Feel free to keep feeding your hummingbirds as long as they’re around.

Adult male hummers left for the south last month, before the peak of the flower season, and by now most of the adult females have joined, just in time to face hurricane season. But the flight of this year’s immature birds is still peaking. Since the first of September we’ve counted 26 migrating past the Lakewood Pumping Station–just a fraction of the ones that actually fly by since they are so small that most of them sneak by without our even noticing them. These birds aren’t lollygagging around because they prefer pigging out at feeders to migrating—they simply can’t fly south until they build up their muscles and a thick layer of fat. Once the flowers die in the year’s first hard frost, most of the stragglers will die, unless feeders are available to keep them alive long enough to get in shape. And even if your backyard hummers are gone now, chances are migrating hummingbirds coming from Canada will still be passing your way, grateful for a sip of sugar water while they rest their weary bones. Don’t worry about them staying too long–they have a powerful instinct commanding them to head out the moment their body fat is adequate to sustain the long flight, and unlike people and Blue Jays, hummingbirds never ignore their better judgment.

The origin of the Labor Day myth about hummingbird feeders is actually based at least indirectly on the case of one hummingbird species–Anna’s Hummingbird. This Southern California bird traditionally didn’t show any north-south migration pattern, but when the food supply in one area was depleted, the birds moved up or down mountain slopes in their perennial search for nectar. Then, in the mid-1960’s, brush fires, floods, and mud-slides destroyed much of their feeding and nesting areas. Many of them starved to death, but the survivors lit out for the territory to the north, in Oregon and Washington. The ones that settled in new places retained the species’ non- migratory pattern, and didn’t head south in the fall. Many of them died, but the hardiest ones survived to produce hardy young. But, meanwhile, back at the ranch, people started worrying about these strange new hummingbirds that stayed at their feeders all winter, and started admonishing others to take down their feeders late in the summer in hopes that the birds would go south. These people mean well, but because they don’t understand the behavioral differences between migratory and non-migratory hummingbird species, they ended up killing their birds with mis- guided kindness. Hummingbird feeders can well keep Anna’s hummingbirds alive during serious cold spells, and certainly help our own Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their long journey to Central America.

(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”