Fall Migration: Headed South For the Winter?

Fall Migration: Headed South For the Winter?

Does feeding the birds in Summer keep them from heading south?



There is a debate that comes round every year at this time (Fall) that I hear about and have to answer.

Does feeding the birds in Summer keep them from heading south?

The easy answer to this is no. It doesn't. The mass migrations picked up by radar systems prove that nothing slows down migration at all. 

It needs to be understood that the drive for birds to move south is deeply internal and instinctual and is influenced by factors that aren't fully understood yet.

Upcoming winter weather, which humans try to predict but get wrong daily and local abundance of natural food resources are likely two key factors that influence who goes and when.

It's conjectured that birds possibly know the upcoming weather months in advance. I read one study ( I need to find it again!) where a certain sparrow was studied, and it was found that on years where the winters were especially gruelling, the birds knew well in advance to have 2-3 more nestings than usual in that year. The birds appeared to be aware of the upcoming brutal weather and bred accordingly to keep the numbers up and secure the survival of their species in the face of adverse conditions. 

Another article talks about how hurricane impacts Varied Thrushes and how they seem to predict upcoming conditions and cut nesting short and hedge their bets with less eggs in the nest to migrate early ahead of the worst of the hurricanes.

Birds are clearly waaayyy smarter than we've given them credit for!

When we feed the birds, except for in possibly extreme drought conditions, we are likely only ever feeding them about 20% of their daily diet. If we forget to fill the feeders you can be fairly certain that they already know where the local natural food source is. The gears and mechanics inside their little systems are sophisticatedly motivating them beyond getting hooked on our offerings.

Some years there will be less birds. Winter 2019/20 seemed to be the winter of no birds. Hiking in Presqu'ile brought no bird songs to sing you through the paths. Many of our customers complained the birds were non existent. There were some still here of course. But they seemed to be picking and choosing their spots and many of us were not seeing them. 2020/21 was much better and thank goodness! With Covid confining us to our homes, the birds in our backyards were often a fantastic source of entertainment for many who had never taken the time to feed them before. 

It's impossible to know what keeps some birds here, and what sends other south of the same species. Do they hold meetings? "George and Seraphina, you get to go south this winter. We'll stick around!" ? I figure it may depend entirely on certain regions. Pockets with ample food keeps the birds here, and the areas that don't have much drive them south, but that's just a simple theory on my part. 

Fall 2021 so far seems quieter, but if there are ample sources of natural foods, that could explain the quiet feeders for some. We are looking forward to what Winter 2021/22 brings to the feeders! And what we do know for sure is that having The Right Stuff in your feeders helps draw them in!



  1. Bobbi Wright Bobbi Wright

    You’ll see more sometimes at this time of year because they’ve brought their babies back to the feeders with them. Migration behaviors have started for most birds - most hummingbirds will be gone by end of September, with a few stragglers in the start of October (weather depending).

  2. Vivian Peters Vivian Peters

    We see the Hummingbirds feeding much much more frequent and so so many lately. Are they preparing for their departure? We do not remember them feeding like this in the last few years.

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