All About Birds Blog

You’re seeing fewer hummingbirds at your feeder. Should you worry?

By on Friday, July 29th, 2011 - 12 Comments

Anna's Hummingbirds

Many bird watchers have a special love for hummingbirds—there’s just so much power and personality packed in that tiny bundle of feathers. Each summer, we get inquiries from people who notice these little dynamos have gone missing from their feeders. But rest assured (barring extreme natural events such as the Arizona fires we wrote about yesterday), hummingbird numbers naturally fluctuate throughout the summer. Here’s a little more information on why (and some tips on best hummingbird feeding practices):

As spring arrives, hummingbirds return to North America (in the Southwest or West Coast, species such as Anna’s Hummingbirds occur year-round). You’ll at first notice one, and then several to many hummingbirds suddenly buzzing around your yard.

But adult male hummingbirds are fiercely territorial and may drive all other male hummingbirds away during the spring nesting season. (Where you put your feeders can partially alleviate this—more about that below) By early July or so, after chicks fledge you may see more birds again. These numbers may grow and then decline as migration begins in late summer and early fall.

The first wave to depart is mainly made up of male hummingbirds, followed by the females and young. In addition to the “local” birds, migrants from farther north may stop for a rest and a sugar-water pick-me-up as they are passing through. By the way, keeping your feeders up in the fall will NOT cause hummers to delay migration. Many factors trigger birds to migrate, but the strongest one is day length. As days grow shorter in late summer, hummingbirds get restless and start to head south, regardless of whether there are feeders around. Several hummingbird accounts in Birds of North America Online also note that feeders may help hummingbirds survive in early spring or late fall when flowers are not in bloom.

If you notice fewer hummingbirds over a widespread area for multiple years, that’s possibly more serious. One way to double-check whether others are noticing the same thing is to explore the data at eBird, the online checklist sponsored by the Cornell Lab and Audubon. Check data for your county for the past few years to see if there seems to have been a change in the numbers of hummingbirds reported. Bird clubs and your state’s breeding bird atlas may also have helpful information on population trends.

Still, it’s often normal for hummingbird populations to differ from one year to the next. Perhaps  availability of natural sources of food or nest sites have changed, causing the birds to look elsewhere. Despite their tiny size, hummingbirds can be injured or killed by free-roaming domestic cats. Some studies have also found that a good wildflower crop will reduce the number of hummingbird visits to feeders. (For an example, see this 1991 research paper in the journal Condor.) It is also possible that there’s more for the hummers to choose from if neighbors have put up feeders in their yards too.

So, what you see or don’t see at your own feeders does not necessarily reflect what is happening to a species as a whole—none of the North American species of hummingbirds is in any trouble at the population level right now. Most species are found in the west and extreme southwest of the United States (read our post about shorter-term problems this fall for southern Arizona hummingbirds and what you can do to help).

If you are still worried about a sudden drop in numbers at your hummingbird feeder, it can’t hurt to double-check your feeding routine. We get a lot of questions about feeding hummingbirds, so here are our notes on a few basic dos and don’ts:

  • The ideal sugar-water mixture for hot or dry weather is one-quarter cup of sugar per cup of water.
  • Honey contains different sugars than are found in nectar and spoils faster than sugar water, so don’t use it in hummingbird feeders.
  • Red food coloring is unnecessary and possibly harmful. Real nectar is colorless.
  • Change sugar water every 3–5 days to prevent mold and deadly fermentation, and more frequently when it’s over 90 degrees outside.
  • Clean feeders at least once a week with hot water and a bottle brush. Don’t use soap or a detergent.
  • If you have a bee, wasp, or ant problem, try moving the feeder. Don’t put oil or other sticky substances around feeding ports to deter insects; you might contaminate the nectar or soil the birds’ feathers.
  • Several smaller feeders spread around your yard may serve more hummingbirds than one large feeder. Male hummers tend to be aggressive, and one bird may keep others away from a feeder even if there’s plenty to go around.

More about hummingbirds and hummingbird feeders on All About Birds:

(Image: Anna’s Hummingbirds by Edgar Paul Coral, via Birdshare)

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12 Comments

  1. Bonnita Thompson says:

    We seem to have a bumper crop this year, Annas, Costas, and Black-chins. I looks like this was a great breeding season as we have lots of juveniles. We are able to feed year round here in the Southwest and always look forward to the migration to see who shows up, on occasion some Rufous and Calliopes. Interesting to note that several times we have had up to six birds sharing our kitchen window feeder all at once, most often when the weather seems to be getting poor.

  2. Sheila Floyd says:

    GREAT ARTICLE!! This answers many hummer questions that I have had this summer! I had all males VERY early spring this year and then a drop and nothing. Now, for about a week, there are many many hummers back at my four feeders. This is one of the best hummer articles I have read! Thanks so much!!!

  3. Jacqueline Flourory says:

    Very interesting article. I’ve wondered if the additional feeders I placed in my yard this year were keeping the hummingbirds away. But now I realize it’s just the more aggressive males. The last couple of weeks I’ve notice more fledglings at all of the feeders. It’s been nice to see the very curious young birds.

  4. Randy Bonds says:

    I loved this article as this has been a huge concern of my wife and mine this year. We moved to the Smoky Mountains a few years ago after purchasing Sunset Farm Cabins and the first season I had to fill our feeders daily. This year I left only a few up as rarely did we see any hummingbirds. This article helps us understand. Thanks.

  5. I am curious about the charm of hummingbirds that appeared in my yard concurrent with Tropical Storm Irene. I am in Maryland near the Chesapeake and the approach of the storm seemed to increase the number of hummingbirds. There are astonishing videos on utube, especially: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dlvpicEfM8. Is there a connection between the birds and the weather?

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Ellen, thanks for sending us this link. The video is wonderful, with good quality, steady camera, and lots of hummingbirds, so we’ve added the link to our Facebook page so others can see it. There are certainly connections between birds and weather. In this case it’s pretty straightforward: during the actual high winds and heavy rainfall, hummingbirds (and many other birds) are unable to feed. So they have to wait out the storm and live off their fat reserves. Hummingbirds especially have high metabolisms, so when the weather clears they come out in force to fuel up at backyard feeders.

  6. Lee Moss says:

    This spring we had the same amount of mumming birds at there feeding locations. In the past 10 days the only bird seen is one male. Is this normal.

  7. Carolyn Mordecai says:

    I heard on Dr. Eliezer Ben-Joseph’s radio program this morning that HMO crops are destroying the humming bird and small singing bird populations as well. He says a humming bird can be destroyed by one HMO corn kernel (insecticide). I live in Phoenix AZ where I use to see humming birds all the time. No more, so I was wondering why too. Please look on Dr. Ben Joseph’s site and listen to June 14, 2013 radio program, if you desire, for more details.

  8. Carolyn Mordecai says:

    P.S. I hit the wrong key. I meant to say June 15th radio program. Sorry for this mistake.

  9. carolyn says:

    I had my first experience with what I think was a juvenile male Rufous that stayed throughout the winter at my feeders. I live in southern Louisiana, and he appeared in late summer with 1-2 red orange throat feathers.He stayed through the winter in a growth of bamboo in my neighbor’s yard.As time passed, I could see the throat feathers coming in more,and when I saw him for the last time in April, they were almost complete.From now on,I will leave my feeders out all winter.It was a wondrous experience!

  10. DEBRA says:

    I have had alot of Hummers in my yard for the past few weeks I have never seen so many I live in West Virginia is this normal? They come to my window but there is no feeder and I am not a flower person.

  11. Kay says:

    We have had lots of hammers this year. Lately they have been very aggressive. Today we have ha none, What’s going on?,

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