Two weeks ago in one of my columns, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen any hummingbirds at my feeders in a few days and figured they’d already begun their migration south. Since then, several readers have chimed in with sightings from their yards, or should I say lack of sightings.
It does seem that the hummers in our region have decided to move on more quickly than in previous years, whether that means anything about the upcoming winter’s weather or it’s just Mother Nature’s way is anyone’s guess.
I’m not so sure their departure has anything to do with the weather. In fact, as I’m writing this, the forecast for today is a high of 95-degrees. That does seem a tad warm for this time of year, doesn’t it?
Bird experts tell us that hummingbirds don’t migrate due to the weather, but the shorter days spur them to move on. Different cohorts of birds move on sooner than others, which might be Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that if one group of hummingbirds gets wiped out by a hurricane, there’s another group coming up right behind to keep the species going.
I did receive an urgent email from a reader warning me not to take down my feeders yet, since hummingbirds from more northern locales might be passing through Southern Maryland and need a sip of nectar to give them the energy needed for migration. Don’t worry — my feeder is still up in my yard and I’ve been changing the water dutifully.
Even before I began writing the Outdoors column, I always kept close tabs on when hummingbirds first made their appearance in spring and when they bid me adieu in the fall. I’ve never seen a ruby-throated hummingbird earlier than May 15, and I’ve never seen one later than Nov. 1.
Although the resident hummingbirds that frequented my feeder all summer long are gone now, I have spotted a few itinerant visitors stopping briefly at my feeder to recharge before continuing on their way.
The rule of thumb is to leave your feeders up for two weeks after you’ve seen the last hummingbird, or if you don’t watch your feeders closely, at least until the middle of November or beginning of December. There could be some stragglers that would really appreciate the fuel for their long journey ahead.
Time to inspect nesting boxes?
I’ve gotten a lot of emails from birdhouse manufacturers announcing that now is a good time to inspect nesting boxes, clean them out for next season and put up new ones. Is that just a gimmick to get folks to spend money on birdhouses during the fall when most people typically buy them in the spring, or is there some actual science behind that suggestion?
It’s true you can start clearing out old nests from the boxes in your yard right now. Some birds can have two to three broods of babies from spring to fall, so if you suspect there’s a bird family still utilizing the box, keep an eye on it for a few days.
You’ll usually hear a lot of noise and see a lot of action near the box during the days the babies fledge, and then silence. That means the box is now empty and you can clean it. Or, since most boxes are fitted with a hinged or sliding door, just open it up and take a quick look.
I’ll never forget the time my husband cleaned out a birdhouse in our backyard sometime in the latter part of February.
He picked up the old nesting material with a gloved hand and simply dropped it about 25 feet to the ground. My kids, who were running around underfoot, brought me a tiny little egg they’d found in the nest.
Turns out it wasn’t old nesting material, after all. Upon closer inspection, we realized there had been three eggs already laid in that nest. The egg they brought me was unfortunately a casualty of their rough handling. But miraculously the other two eggs were fine and my husband gingerly placed them and their nest back in the box.
I don’t think the titmice appreciated our intervention into their family affairs, but they did raise a few broods of babies that summer nonetheless.
And just in case you are wondering why our birdhouses are up so high, there are several neighborhood outdoor cats that can climb a tree and get their paw in a birdhouse or just plain harass the parent birds. We place them up high so the cats can’t do that.
It’s not necessarily always ideal, but birds adapt, and some birds like titmice actually prefer the boxes quite high. We aren’t going to have bluebirds use our boxes, but having them up high and safe is much better than the alternative.
I’ve often heard the advice that birds might use nest boxes for shelter during the winter months or to escape predators. I’ve never actually seen a bird go into a birdhouse during a snowstorm, but I’ve seen many instances of birds maneuvering up and down the sides of trees using the trunk as a buffer against the blowing snow. And every single time they just skitter right past a nest box, preferring the elements, I guess.
So, should you put up nesting boxes now?
Well for one thing, it sure is a lot more pleasant outdoors during the month of October than it can be in January or February.
Plus, some birds prefer weathered boxes to brand new ones. And, if you act now, you’ll have a good chance of attracting the first birds to start scouting for boxes. If you wait until February, you might have already missed them.
We don’t have any nest boxes installed at our new house yet, but I’m thinking one weekend this October will be the ideal time to get them up and ready for next year.