What Happens When You Stop Feeding Hummingbirds?

For many people, putting out feeders and enjoying hummingbirds is a beloved summer tradition. But what happens when those feeders suddenly go empty? Will hummingbirds starve or abandon your yard? Understanding the impacts of stopping supplemental feeding helps ensure we support hummingbirds responsibly.

Short-Term Impacts

If feeders are not refilled for a period of days or weeks in mid-summer, here is what generally occurs:

  • Search for food – Hummingbirds will frantically check empty feeders and nearby flowers seeking alternate nectar sources.
  • Expanded territories – They expand their feeding range hoping to find more blossoms. Conflicts may arise if territories overlap.
  • Lower energy – Lack of adequate nutrition forces them to conserve energy by reducing flying and all non-essential activity.
  • Stress behaviors – Increased aggression and distress vocalizations may be observed as competition intensifies.
  • Weight loss – Without adequate sustenance, hummingbirds gradually lose weight and muscle mass. Young and small birds are impacted most.
  • Mob emptied feeders – When you refill after a delay, ravenous hummingbirds may aggressively mob the feeder.

So in the short term, sudden loss of supplemental feeders stresses hummingbirds and forces them to tap blooming flowers more heavily for their needs.

Longer-Term Impacts

If you permanently remove feeders that hummingbirds depend on as a primary food source, these effects may result:

  • Territory abandonment – Hummingbirds will ultimately leave yards no longer meeting their nutritional requirements.
  • Reproductive issues – Lack of food can impact egg and chick development for breeding birds.
  • Migration depletion – Hummingbirds may start fall migration in a weakened state without feeders.
  • Population decline – Sites with feeders removed may see hummingbird numbers drastically drop long-term.
  • Higher mortality – Malnourishment makes hummingbirds vulnerable to predators and natural elements. Deaths may occur.

So ceasing feeding support can have significant negative repercussions – unless done responsibly outside key migration and breeding periods.

What Do Hummingbirds Eat Besides Feeders?

When feeders are removed, what food sources allow hummingbirds to survive? Here are the main natural foods they rely on:

  • Flower nectar – Nectar from blooming trees, shrubs, vines provides essential sugars.
  • Insects – Small spiders and insects offer essential proteins and fats when caught midair.
  • Sap – Tree sap oozing from holes in bark serves as an alternate energy source.
  • Pollen – Hummingbirds will supplement with the protein-rich pollen from flowers.
  • Rain drops – Rain drops on leaves supply supplemental water in addition to nectar.

However, in many residential areas these natural food options are limited, forcing dependency on feeders as the primary nutrition source when flowers are not in bloom.

How Rapidly Do Effects Appear?

When you remove feeders, how quickly will you observe effects on hummingbirds? Here’s a general timeline:

  • 1-2 days – Initial heightened anxiety seeking other food sources
  • 3-5 days – Expanded territories and increased conflicts
  • 1-2 weeks – Gradual lethargy and loss of mass as nutrition declines
  • 2-4 weeks – Noticeable decrease in hummingbird numbers as territories relocate
  • 1-2 months – Abandonment of site as birds redistribute to adequate habitats

So while hunger sets in quickly, the most severe impacts take weeks or months to manifest. Providing alternative flowers can help extend site usage.

Steps to Minimize Harm

If you must remove feeders, these steps can help minimize negative impacts on hummingbirds:

  • Avoid peak seasons – Take down feeders in winter when most birds have migrated.
  • Phase out gradually – Slowly reduce number of feeders over 2-4 weeks.
  • Plant abundant flowers – Ensure plenty of fresh blossoms are available to supplement.
  • Time for migration – Remove by early August so they can fatten up pre-migration.
  • Clean feeders – Let them empty rather than actively removing to avoid shocking birds.
  • Maintain some feeders – Keep a few low-capacity feeders so some food remains.

A gradual patient approach allows birds to steadily adapt and redistribute more safely.

When Feeding Should Continue Year-Round

In some cases, year-round hummingbird feeding is essential:

  • Cold climates – At higher latitudes with long harsh winters.
  • Tropical and subtropical areas – Where non-migratory hummingbird species reside.
  • During extreme weather – Hot, dry, or freezing periods that impact flowers.
  • Habitat loss – Developed areas lacking natural food sources.

Discontinuing feeding in these conditions could be devastating. Get guidance from local ornithology groups on best practices for your region.

Alternate Feeding Locations

If you must halt feeding, directing birds to other sites may ease the transition:

  • Nearby gardens – Encourage neighbors to leave feeders up.
  • Community nature areas – Parks, gardens, and protected lands may offer resources.
  • Wild areas – Directing birds towards native vegetation can help.

Select sites with sufficient natural flowers and feeders to absorb your former population. This distributes the food demand.

Can Hummingbirds Become Dependent on Feeders?

There is some debate around whether feeders create “dependency” in hummingbirds. The evidence suggests:

  • Hummingbirds have survived for millennia without human help, adapting their feeding patterns to flower availability.
  • They do opportunistically take advantage of consistent feeder nutrients, especially in low flower areas.
  • Sudden removal can temporarily impact birds relying on feeders as their primary food before they readjust territories and food sources.

So while supplemental feeding is extremely helpful, maintaining some native flowers and gradually phasing feeders reduces dependency risks.

Conclusion

Hummingbirds are resilient birds that can adapt to changes in food availability. But suddenly halting supplemental feeding without providing flower alternatives causes short-term starvation risk and may gradually lead to abandonment of sites. Conscientious steps like phasing out feeders slowly, maintaining blossoms, and directing birds to new habitats can allow a responsible transition. With extra care during vulnerable periods, we can meet hummingbirds’ needs while also allowing them to readjust to a more natural diet if required.

FAQs

Do hummingbirds starve if you stop feeding them?

They do not immediately starve but will be very stressed seeking alternate food sources. Gradual weight loss begins after 1-2 weeks without adequate nutrition.

What do hummingbirds eat if feeders are removed?

Flower nectar, tree sap, small insects, spider webs, and pollen become critical food sources. But these may be limited in developed areas.

How long can hummingbirds survive without feeders?

They can survive weeks or months utilizing flowers and other nutrition. But lack of food eventually causes territory abandonment, reproductive issues, or in severe cases, death.

What time of year is safest to remove hummingbird feeders?

It’s best to remove feeders gradually in late fall to winter when most hummingbirds have completed their migration and are not breeding.

Should I take down hummingbird feeders permanently?

Only remove permanently if native flowering plants are abundant to provide adequate nutrition. Or phase out responsibly over migration seasons when most birds are absent.

Do hummingbirds depend too much on feeders?

They opportunistically utilize feeders but still rely more heavily on flowers. The key is gradually transitioning to avoid sudden food loss that can jeopardize populations.

Can Removing feeders harm hummingbirds?

Abruptly removing feeders a population relies on can lead to starvation risk, reproductive issues, migration depletion, and potential death if alternatives are not available.

How can I get hummingbirds to leave my yard safely?

Phase out feeders over 2-4 weeks, direct birds to areas with adequate flowers and feeders, ensure fresh blossoms are available in your yard, and remove remaining feeders in winter.