It seems like just yesterday that spring had sprung and the birding message boards were full of folks eagerly asking, “When do the hummingbirds arrive? Have you seen any hummers yet?” And then there was a flurry of people excitedly sharing pictures and reports of their first sightings.
But lately I’m seeing a lot of questions about why hummingbirds are no longer being spotted at feeders. Just yesterday I received this text from my mom:
I haven’t seen my female hummingbird in over three days now. We did have a pretty good storm then with wind and rain… I’m thinking I’ve lost her. I thought I saw the male once the other day. What do you think is going on?
I completely understand this logical concern, because we have had a deluge of rain every day for almost a week now, and I’ve had some pretty soaked, ragtag-looking bluejays, titmice, and others show up at my feeders. It makes you wonder how an even smaller bird can survive harsh weather.
But birds are hardy creatures! Let’s not forget that our ruby-throated hummingbirds here in the eastern U.S. migrate thousands of miles, crossing the Gulf of Mexico, twice a year, and amazingly endure a variety of unfriendly conditions. Surely they can withstand a hard Midwest rainstorm!
So, where have these folks’ hummers gone? Well, as I write this, I just had a female rubythroat buzz up to my feeder and a moment later aggressively (and loudly!) chase off a second one. This is the first activity I’ve seen at the feeder in a few days.
But, honestly, I’m not staring at the feeder ALL day long, so who knows if they’ve popped in when my back was turned? And, certainly, I’m not the only one around here feeding the hummingbirds. As much as I like to think of them as “my” hummers, I’m sure they make the rounds in the neighborhood. Perhaps they prefer someone else’s feeder style, or have found someone who changes their nectar daily. (I have four kids that require daily feedings and that’s about all I can handle, ha! I do try to stay on top of changing out my feeder every 2–3 days, especially during warmer days when nectar will go bad more quickly. Here are some good general hummingbird feeder guidelines to follow.)
Consider, too, that it is nesting season. This means females in particular are being more covert in their behavior, not wanting to draw predator attention to the location of their nests.
And nestlings require protein in their feedings—which comes from insects, not nectar. Hummingbirds dine on a number of small insects, including gnats, aphids, fruit flies, and spiders. In fact, they consume a lot more than the casual observer might expect!
Another thought, which applies to anyone wondering why any bird—orioles, finches, etc.—has suddenly disappeared from the feeder after being a regular visitor, is that birds will always, always choose natural food sources over our offerings. And these natural sources—insects, seeds, fruits—are at their most abundant right now. Our feeders provide an easy supplement for them, but really, feeders are more for our benefit, drawing birds in closer for our viewing pleasure. (Although, in harsh winter conditions, our feeders could increase chances of survival for some of our feathered friends!)
In short, birds come and birds go for a number of reasons, and as humans prone to worry about the creatures we enjoy and care about it, we can be quick to assume the worst or take their absence personally. These quieter days at the feeder are actually the perfect time to take notice of other winged summer visitors, like butterflies, moths, and dragonflies! (Do you know about the hummingbird moth?)
And don’t forget to look up, beyond the feeders, beyond the treetops even, and you’ll find swifts and swallows, nighthawks and bats, meteor showers and supermoons… Nature offers no shortage of activity to observe during these lush and lazy days!
About the Author
Jessica Melfi is Assistant Editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She is the mother of four young birders and lives in Columbus, Ohio.