Birds in the Garden

Help Hummingbirds Get Ready for Fall Migration

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are getting ready for their fall migration and they are hungry! In the weeks before migration, their hormones stimulate hyperphagia – a compulsive need to overeat – to gain the extra weight and fat they need for the long flight ahead. (Hummingbirds increase their weight up to 40%.) Half of their diet comes from sugar – from the nectar of flowers and feeders – and the other half from insects, including ants, aphids, gnats, mites, mosquitoes and spiders.

Signs that let hummingbirds know it’s about time to head south for the winter include:

  • Daylight: the amount of daylight and the angle of the sun in the sky;
  • Food: sources of nectar and insects begin to disappear;
  • Age: mature birds begin migrating earlier than young birds.
  • Gender: males begin migrating earlier to establish their winter territories.

Migrating hummingbirds fly low to see nectar-providing flowers along the way, feeding in early morning and evening. They travel alone and rest at night.

Here’s how to help migrating hummingbirds:

  • Keep feeders up until the end of October so even those late to get started on their migration will have plenty of food. It is a myth that leaving hummingbird feeders up will prevent them from migrating when they should. This is not true.
  • Put up extra feeders so these territorial birds, that don’t like to share, can refuel.
  • Refill feeders every few days with fresh sugar water at a higher ratio of sugar to water (1 part sugar to 3 parts water). Do NOT use red food coloring.
  • Keep feeders clean. Clean with hot water and brushes.
  • Leave hummingbird-attracting summer annuals in pots as long as possible. Salvia ‘Black & Blue’ keeps the hummingbirds in my yard happy well into October.
  • Plan to plant more flowers next year with high nectar content like abutilon, agastache, bee balm, fuchsia, honeysuckle, penstemon, and salvia.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly an average of 23 miles per day to Florida, Louisiana or Texas. Inclement weather may delay their trip as they remain in protected locations until it is safe to continue. With the recent hurricanes, they may have a tough journey ahead.

The final leg of their migration takes hummingbirds across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America – a trip of more than 500 miles that can take up to 24 hours.

Amazing, isn’t it? Let’s all do what we can to help these incredible birds on their journey. Garden with me!

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