North Words: Feeding late in season won’t deter birds from migrating

I observed my last hummingbird of the season on Sept. 20. The lone male hummer sat on one of my feeders and drank heavily from the reservoir's fresh sugar water. Off and on throughout the day I saw the bird -- likely the same bird, or so I though...

I observed my last hummingbird of the season on Sept. 20.

The lone male hummer sat on one of my feeders and drank heavily from the reservoir’s fresh sugar water. Off and on throughout the day I saw the bird - likely the same bird, or so I thought.

Watching him feed and rest, I wondered, “Is he a local bird or a migrant from further north?” I also wondered if the little fellow would stay for long, or if others would later join him.

But alas, the next day he was gone. And gone for good.

Seeing the latecomer reminded me of what I’m often asked by readers that want to know whether or not they should remove their hummingbird feeders early in September as a way to encourage local birds to migrate. Indeed, a notion persists, albeit false, that if one leaves feeders up too long, hummingbirds might delay their migration, thus putting them at a disadvantage if bad weather should occur.


Every year I leave my feeders up until the last hummingbird has come and gone. And that’s usually around mid-September. Even though hummingbirds utilize the high-energy drink provided from your feeders, the little birds are certainly not totally reliant on it.

It is the overall decrease in food (flowers and insects), the time of the year and forces not fully understood that drives hummingbirds (and other birds for that matter) to migrate to warmer climes where food is more abundant.

In fact, food is the overriding reason for migration in the first place. In regard to allowing the hummingbird feeders to hang outside an extra week or so, I think the little birds appreciate those feeders right up to the last minute before departing.

Migration is upon us here in our region. For many birds, it began weeks ago. Long gone are the rose-breasted grosbeaks that were making regular appearances at my sunflower feeders just a few weeks ago. I’m now observing dark-eyed juncos and fox sparrows-another sure sign of migration.

And as usual this time of year, the year-around resident downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees are busy feeding and caching seeds for the winter, too.

The latter behavior is interesting to observe. The birds will land on the feeder, quickly remove a seed, and fly away. If the seed isn’t immediately consumed, they will hide the seed into fissures of bark to feed on at a later time.

This is especially important when the weather becomes harsh and finding food is more difficult. It is also the reason, I think, that sunflowers grow in unusual places around your yard. It could be that one of those cached seeds fell to the ground, germinated, and began growing because of the activities of some resourceful bird.

Migration is a perplexing and complicated phenomenon. As already mentioned, migration is necessary for many birds that are not able to cope with the lack of food during our winters. But one could reason, if seed-eating purple finches, chickadees, nuthatches, and other birds can stick around for the worse that Mother Nature can dish out, why can’t or why doesn’t other seed-eating birds do the same?


Many birds are equipped to survive cold and extreme weather. Ducks and geese could easily survive our winters if water and food were more abundant. Indeed, some do spend the winters here if conditions are favorable. By and large, however, they head south, too.

So, it comes down to not so much the physiological limitations of birds that necessitate the annual exodus, but simply the lack of preferred foods. It’s obvious to us all that there are no flowers blooming in January to feed those hummingbirds or open water to accommodate the belted kingfisher or great blue heron hunting for fishes.

Another interesting facet about migration is how they do it. Flying south, or north depending on the species or time of year, is not as simple as it sounds. Birds do not have compasses, yet they travel huge distances every year on their way to the same wintering grounds seemingly unaided. How do they know the way?

It is believed that since many birds migrate at night, that stars must play a huge role.

Stars are utilized to orient birds and assist them in finding their destinations. It is also widely believed that, for many birds, the established migratory routes are taught. Juveniles learn the ways of migration from older birds that have flown the routes in the past.

The theory has validity. Whooping cranes and other birds have been taught where to migrate by humans flying light aircraft posing as the “lead bird” of the flock. Experienced birds lead by example, flying over familiar landmarks on their way to known locales.

Now is the time to see migration in action. As autumn continues, more birds will be filtering through, more will leave, and more of the sky will be filled with great flocks of waterfowl and other birds on their annual retreat as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at .

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