If you are reading this article there is a good chance this may have happened to you. You put out your hummingbird feeder in the spring and are excited when they arrive. They spend the early weeks of the spring zipping all over the yard, chattering away, sometimes fighting each other for dominance of the feeder or performing courtship flight displays. Just when you were getting used to all the activity, they disappear. The hummingbird withdrawal sets in and you are confused. Where did my hummingbirds go? Why did my hummingbirds disappear? Did I do something wrong? Did something bad happen to them?
Not to worry, this is fairly common and something most hummingbird watchers will encounter.
The top 5 reasons hummingbirds disappear from your yard are:
- Males are territorial and chase each other away
- Females visit feeders less while nesting
- They may be eating more from local flowers
- They may be focusing more on protein in their diet
- Your feeder may not be clean
Let’s dig into each of these five reasons to get a better understanding of why hummingbirds seem to suddenly vanish and what we can do, if anything, to prevent it.
1. Territory Wars
Hummingbirds are very territorial and will end up staking a claim to an area about the size of a quarter acre. They choose their territories based on availability of food and water. The first hummingbirds to return from migration get first pick of the best spots, and as more and more hummingbirds arrive back from their wintering grounds, the competition gets fierce.
You may notice several male hummingbirds visiting your yard in early spring. If they decide your yard is the territory they want to claim, they will begin trying to chase each other away. Soon one male will dominate, chasing away all other males that enter the area. This is one reason why you might see hummingbird numbers start to decline.
I took the video below in early spring one year, these two males went at it all day. Not too long after I only saw one male coming around.
This territory becomes his mating ground, and he will attempt to mate with any females that come into this area. The males are very aggressive during this time in putting on displays to try and attract females while keeping other males away. Once the female chooses him, they will mate and that is the end of his responsibilities to her. He doesn’t help with the nest, or caring for the young. Often, he will go on to mate with one or more other females. So he will keep defending his territory from other males through the mating season.
What can you do? Try setting up multiple feeders. If you can get two feeders on opposite sides of your yard, especially if they aren’t within site of each other, you may be able to get more than one male in the yard. Later on in the summer, you can try grouping more feeders together in the SAME place. In the summer the females and juveniles will come back to the feeder and if a male is still being a “bully”, he may get too tired trying to defend multiple feeders and give up the fight.
Female hummingbirds are the ones that build the nests. After they have chosen a male to mate with, you may see them visiting your feeders far less often. The female hummingbirds are solely responsible for incubating the eggs, and protecting and feeding the hatchlings. Because they cannot trade off these responsibilities with the male, they have to stick very close to their nests. If their nest happens to be in your yard, then you will have more likelihood of seeing them zip to your feeder for a quick meal. But if the nest is far enough away from your feeder, they may not visit at all, choosing to keep their foraging activities within a small radius of the nest.
In general, most female hummingbirds will sit on their eggs for 15-18 days before they hatch. Then after hatching, it will take another 15-28 days before the young are old enough to leave the nest. So that’s a whole 4-6 week time period where you may not be seeing female hummingbirds visit your feeders, or only coming very infrequently.
How long is hummingbird nesting season?
This depends on your location. In the northern latitudes the main hummingbirds are the ruby-throated hummingbird and rufous hummingbird. These hummingbirds migrate a long way, and most only have time to raise one brood a year. The females will be busy with nesting in late spring into early – mid summer. So in Canada and the northern half of the United States, you will often see hummingbird numbers increase at your feeders again in mid summer. Not only will the females be free to roam around again, but the juveniles will be flying on their own and seeking out food. You will likely get several family members coming back to your feeder. In the southern states and Mexico where hummingbirds are found year round, hummingbirds may have between 1 and 3 broods so the frequency of feeder visits may cycle up and down.
3. Changes in Diet
Did you know that hummingbirds eat bugs? It’s talked about so infrequently that many people believe hummingbirds live on nectar alone. We also rarely see it happen. Think about when you are able to observe hummingbirds. It’s usually while they are at your feeder or are visible slowly moving from flower to flower in your garden. They are so small and fast that as soon as they are a few feet away from us they are hard to see, forget trying to find them zipping among tree tops or out in the woods.
It’s important for hummingbirds to have a diet that consists of both carbohydrates (sugar from flower nectar, tree sap, and feeders) as well as protein from insects. Hummingbirds focus mainly on small, soft bodied insects such as gnats, spiders, fruit flies, mosquitoes and aphids.
German ornithologist Helmuth Wagner studied Mexican hummingbirds and found that:
“The food of hummingbirds is determined primarily by habitat and season. A given species may feed mainly on nectar or mainly on insects, depending on the time of year.”
After the nestlings hatch, mother hummingbird is kept very busy gathering food, and a lot of that food is insects. The babies need protein to help them grow quickly to the stage where they can leave the nest. So the female hummingbirds could be spending much more time searching out insects than stopping by your feeder to grab nectar.
What can you do? Keep your yard insect friendly and try a fruit fly feeder. Check out our article on feeding insects to hummingbirds.
4. Giving preference to local blooms
When hummingbirds first arrive in early spring, there may not be many flowers that are blooming yet where you live. This can increase the frequency that hummingbirds visit your feeder, since there are fewer natural flowers available. But towards the end of spring, many local plants are in full bloom and hummingbirds may start to visit their favorite native plants more often than your feeder.
A study was performed where researchers counted how often hummingbirds visited a feeder versus visited flowers, when both were equally available. It found that hummingbirds visited the flowers more frequently.
What can you do? One way to keep the hummingbirds interested in your yard on a more consistent basis is to plant native flowers that hummingbirds love. Choose varieties that bloom in different months to keep hummingbirds coming back all spring and summer. For more information visit our article 20 plants and flowers that attract hummingbirds.
5. Your feeder is too dirty
Chances are if you are reading this, you know how often you need to clean your feeder and have already been careful about this. But if you are new to hummingbird feeding or just haven’t heard, keeping feeders clean and making sure the nectar is fresh is so important!
Because of the high sugar content of nectar, it spoils rather quickly. It can easily grow mold, fungus and bacteria, all of which are harmful to the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are pretty savvy about this, and if they sense your nectar has gone bad, they will likely stay away.
Nectar should be changed every 1-6 days, depending on the average outdoor daily temperature. The hotter it is outside, the more often you need to clean your feeder and replace with fresh nectar. See our chart below;
Don’t just top off what is already out there! You need to dump the old nectar, clean the feeder, and refill with fresh nectar. Check out our article “how often should I clean my hummingbird feeder” for more information about cleaning and refilling nectar feeders. Make sure to keep things fresh and healthy to ensure hummingbirds aren’t avoiding your feeder because they don’t like your nectar.
In short, when hummingbirds go missing from the feeder it is most often just part of the natural seasonal cycle. The best thing you can do is keep your feeders out and keep the nectar fresh and ready, because in almost all cases they WILL return.