Hummingbirds are loners
Hummingbird migration is not like the migrations of many other birds. There are no flocks of hummingbirds gathering on power lines like swallows, no swarms descending into marshes like blackbirds, and no long V’s streaming across the sky like geese.
Hummingbirds migrate alone — truth is hummingbirds hate each other. They don’t need a large flock of hummers gathered around for protection or telling them when it is time to leave. They are plenty streetwise and can handle themselves.
These independent birds don’t even head south at the same time; some go early, some go later. Their migration is drawn out over several months. It begins as early as late July for the males and continues into October for the females and young birds.
Unlike most songbirds, hummingbirds don’t pair up as long-term couples. They hook up briefly to mate and then go their separate ways. The female builds the nest, lays the eggs, sits on the eggs, hatches the eggs, and raises the entire brood all by herself.
The only thing the male does is mate.
It’s part of nature’s payback for making them so small; male hummingbirds are allowed to mate with as many females as they can attract. Once their “work” is done and all the females are busy tending nests, the males get bored and start thinking about going back down south — probably to rest.
It is a common bird feeding myth that hummingbirds won’t migrate if food is available from a feeder. Feeders benefit hummingbirds, but a few ounces of sugar water in one won’t disrupt thousands of years of evolution.
They depend on flowers to live. They feed off both the nectar flowers produce and the tiny insects attracted to the nectar. Tons of flowers, both wild and cultivated, are in full bloom from midsummer to early fall.
Why do the birds leave when there is so much natural food?
Because they know the big chill is coming. Their instinct to migrate is much too strong to be overcome by abundant food. Neither flowers nor feeders will keep them from getting out of town while the getting is good.
That said, every year some hummingbird ends up at a feeder long after it should have gone south. Newspapers love to print pictures of a confused hummingbird at a feeder in December.
Some people always suggest that the artificial food supply kept the bird from migrating. Reality is, the bird probably did migrate, but went the wrong way. Occasionally birds get their brain wires crossed and migrate north or east instead of south. Just like some people drive the wrong way down a one way street — it happens.
Leave your hummingbird feeder out as long as you like this year. It won’t interfere with migration and it may help keep a lost bird alive at least for a while. Sadly, the migration instinct only lasts for a short time and even cold weather won’t force a wayward bird to move on.
Nature has a harsh way of taking misfits out of the gene pool.