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Time to Go (Migration Instincts)

Photo Group
Anna's Hummingbird
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

One of the oldest “tales” about birds that I have been addressing is the belief that you have to take your hummingbird feeders down to force the birds to leave so they will not stay here and starve to death.

The trigger mechanism in birds for most natural occurrences is day length. The internal “clock” if you will, lets wild animals in general know that it is time to start one of their many cycles. Migration is a classic example. Remember the old Wild Kingdom videos of geese getting back to their nesting grounds only to find the water still frozen? I loved watching the geese sliding across the ice as they tried to land.

The message was that the geese that wintered in Missouri never know what the weather is like in the artic. The change in day length tells their bodies they have to get moving if they are going to have enough time to successfully nest in the very short nesting window at the top of the world.

Hummingbirds are much the same. The shortening days tug at their bodies to head south. Adult birds have done this a time or two, but the youngsters have not. The birds that hatched this summer don’t know why they have to leave so they tend to stay longer than their parents but their bodies, not your hummingbird feeder will win that tug of war.

There are always stragglers and early arrivals each year so we encourage quite the opposite in thinking when it comes to your feeder management.

Those stragglers I mentioned that do pass through late will need a food source worse than those that are on time. Some who maintain their feeders up later into the season are rewarded with a rarer species of hummingbird. A friend of mine while living in Columbia, Missouri had an Anna’s Hummingbird visiting a feeder in December several years ago. They actually put a heat lamp on it to keep the water from freezing.

Migration is a dangerous endeavor for birds and all wildlife. We help many more birds than we realize by maintaining a clean and healthy source of food, water and shelter for them in our yards.

By Mark McKellar

FALL 2014