Newsroom Midwest Region

Help or hinderance? The best time to take in your hummingbird feeders

Male rufous hummingbird. Photo courtesy of Alan Schmierer.
Male rufous hummingbird. Photo courtesy of Alan Schmierer.

As we look out to our once active hummingbird feeders, we’re instantly reminded that the move is on. The return of fall brings the departure of many migratory birds in the midwest. While the result is a noticeable decrease at hummingbird feeders, rare hummingbirds can sometimes use a helping hand in heading on their way to warmer skies. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want to provide some food for thought when it comes to taking in your hummingbird feeders.

Hummingbird feeders are popular and usually busy with activity from early spring through late summer. Here in the midwest, they are most commonly visited by ruby-throated hummingbirds, but fall migration can bring some unusual birds, including the rufous hummingbird. In fact, the rufous hummingbird has been appearing in increasing numbers in the midwest in recent years, which is well outside of its normal range.

“Occasionally, stray migrant rufous hummingbirds will linger into late fall here,” said Wildlife Biologist Andy Forbes. “Our resident ruby-throated hummingbirds are not adapted to cold weather and rarely stay long as fall’s chill sets in, but rufous hummingbirds are more adapted to cold because their normal distribution is well to the north and/or at higher elevations.”

Rufous hummingbirds are able to survive the cold for short periods by lowering their metabolism. The key words here being ‘short periods.' Midwest winters are not an environment they could survive in at length, which is why we must make sure we do not encourage them to stay too long by keeping feeders up late into the fall. This includes the use of heat lamps to keep feeders open.

When to take your feeders down

Male ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder. Photo courtesy of Mark Moschell/Creative Commons.
Male ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder. Photo courtesy of Mark Moschell/Creative Commons.

What can you do to help hummingbirds on their fall migration? Keep your feeders stocked through the early fall to provide helpful energy to migrating birds, but take your feeder down at the first sign of frost or when your feeder freezes for the first time. This will ensure that stray migrants like the rufous hummingbird don’t stay too long and cause concern.

If you do spot a late-season rufous hummingbird or any other species of unusual hummingbird, please don’t try to capture it. It will likely follow its normal course and migrate. In all situations, if you come upon a bird, or other wildlife, that you believe to be injured, the best thing to do is to leave it alone. If you feel the need to help, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for assistance. Licensed professional wildlife rehabilitators have the permits, tools and training to safely handle injured animals.

Wildlife Biologist Deanne Endrizzi noted, “it’s a treat seeing out-of-range species like rufous hummingbirds who sometimes choose to route themselves through the midwest, for reasons we don’t entirely understand. We ask people not to prolong their migration by providing food sources too late into the fall. We do however, encourage you to report sightings of these and other rare species you spot passing through your community via eBird. Your assistance in tracking sightings provides important data which helps bird conservation.”

As with any wildlife, it's survival of the fittest and, under normal circumstances, migratory birds will follow their biological clock to migrate when the timing is best for a well-fed journey to their favorite wintering grounds. We can all help this happen naturally by following these recommendations.