How to Help Hummingbirds in the Winter

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The vast majority of hummingbirds migrate south at the end of summer, following the trail of still-blooming flowers down to spend the winter at warm latitudes like Mexico, Central and South America. You may have seen popular advice to leave hummingbird feeders out for two weeks after you’ve seen your last bird, just in case. But what do you do if they never leave?

As fall turns to winter you may find you have a persistent hummingbird that’s clearly not packing up and heading south. Or maybe you’ve already packed your feeder away for the season and happen to see one buzz by in the yard and scramble to get the feeder put back out. In either case you are probably wondering, what the heck are they still doing here? Isn’t it too cold??

Which hummingbirds stay during the winter?

There are several species of hummingbird that are now known to “over-winter” in the United States. Anna’s hummingbirds populations have slowly crept northward up the west coast of California since the 1930’s and now can be found as far north as southern Alaska. Many people in Washington and Oregon now report that they have Anna’s in their yard all through the winter.

Rufous hummingbirds have also been reported wintering far north in recent years. Thanks to backyard birdwatchers turning in their reports to eBird, the Cornell Lab of ornithology has data from 2012-2015 showing Rufous hummingbirds spending winters in Indiana, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New York and Michigan.

These far north sightings are more sporadic than the southeastern United States, where you can find wintering hummingbirds (mainly Rufous, Allen’s and Black-chinned) in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama along the Gulf Coast.  However the hub of wintering U.S. hummingbirds is the lower portion of Arizona along the Mexico boarder.

Why do some hummingbirds stay during the winter?

This is a questions that scientists and ornithologists are still puzzling over. One theory is that by remaining, they will be the first to claim the feeding grounds in the spring before the migrants return. Another theory says certain species might be trying their luck at staying rather than traveling the long migration path too late in the season and not being able to find enough food along the way to sustain the journey south.

It’s a big risk to fly from Washington to Mexico if you might run out of food halfway!

Hummingbird perched in a tree in the snow

What do hummingbirds eat in the winter?

While your backyard feeder can provide them with their main source of fuel, hummingbirds need to eat more than just sugar water to survive. They need protein and minerals which they get from eating small insects. In many areas of the U.S. during the winter, insects can still be found and the hummingbirds know where to look for them.

However areas of the country like the northern central and eastern states that have months of below freezing temperatures may not have enough available insect life or blooming plants to supplement a hummingbird diet.

How do hummingbirds survive the cold?

Many birds have little tricks for staying warm during harsh winter temperatures. Hummingbirds are able to enter a hibernation-like state called Torpor. During Torpor everything slows down. Their body temperature drops as low as possible, and their heart rate goes down to about 50 beats per minute.

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Metabolism lowers to 1/15 of their normal daytime rate. They sleep in this Torpor every night. This allows them to save a lot of energy and means there is a better chance that the food they were able to eat that day will keep them warm through the night.

How to feed hummingbirds in the winter

Blooms and bugs decrease as the winter season starts to take over, and hummers who decide to stick around will need your help more than ever! Of utmost importance is making sure your feeder is ready first thing at sunrise and doesn’t freeze.  If the hummers go even two hours without being able to feed when they need to, it could spell disaster. If it gets cold enough where you are to freeze nectar, here are some ways you can keep your hummingbirds fed.

Buy a heated feeder

Heated hummingbird feeders aren’t easy to come by. I suppose because there isn’t a large market for them not many companies have bothered. But here are a two I was able to find;

  • Hummer Hearth: technically this isn’t a feeder, it is an attachment that fits to the underside of your existing feeder and keeps temps above freezing with a bulb.
  • Hummers Heated Delight: An all-in-one heater and feeder

Heat your feeder DIY style

Since there are not many heated feeders on the market, most people DIY their own setup. It may take a little trial and error to figure out what is going to work for you, depending on how cold it gets where you live.

  1. Practical and festive, some people wrap their feeder in a string of Christmas lights to keep it warm enough. Make sure you are using incandescent bulbs and not LED since those won’t give off heat.
  2. Hang an incandescent (again, no LEDs) utility/mechanics light near the feeder station.
  3. Clamp a heat lamp near the feeder station.
  4. Create an insulating “sleeve” for the feeder. Knit your own, make something out of fleece fabric, cut off the sleeve from an old sweater, or even make something with a thinsulate faucet sock, get creative! Leave just enough wiggle room to insert handwarming packets. In the morning, heat the nectar and put on your sleeve right before putting it outside. This should trap warmth for awhile, and you can add the handwarming packets as necessary.
  5. Wrap the feeder in Pipe Heating Tape. Heat Tape is often used outside for keeping your gutters or outside pipes free from icing up. Many have a built in thermostat and turn on and off at certain temperatures to conserve energy.

Just remember, when using any heating implements to make sure they are used safely and carefully monitored. We don’t want to melt any feeders or start any fires! All products and extension cords should be rated for outdoor use.

Here are two creative DIY solutions to get your ideas flowing!

Increasing the sugar in your nectar

This one is a little controversial but I thought I would include it since I see a fair number of sites recommend it. Nectar should normally be a ratio of 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water. Higher sugar content will make the nectar solution freeze a little bit more slowly, so some people will tell you to bump up the solution to 1:3. However, higher sugar content can be bad for hummingbird health. There’s only so much sugar their bodies can process at one time, and too much will tax the liver and kidneys. As the ratio gets higher the nectar gets more syrupy and this can be harder for them to drink.

Hummingbirds also get a lot of their water from nectar. If their normal water sources are frozen, they may depend heavily on the water content in nectar to keep from dehydrating. (Side note, a heated water source would be a nice thing for all your birds!) Therefore we strongly recommend staying with the 1:4 sugar to water ratio at all times!

Offer flowering winter plants, shrubs and trees

To help wintering hummingbirds even further you can plant winter blooming shrubs in your yard. This will help ensure they have natural sources should a feeder run out or freeze before you can get to it, and may also attract the insects that the hummers need in their diet.

Here is a short list of some ideas that bloom late fall to early spring. They won’t grow in all areas of the United States so check the zones before planting.

  • Leatherleaf Mahonia ‘Lionel Fortescue’
  • Witch Hazel
  • Rosemary
  • Manzanita Austin Griffiths
  • Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ (Arrowwood)
  • Yuletide Camellia
  • Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)
  • Sarcococca (Sweet box aka Christmas box)
  • Daphne odora
  • Royal Grevillea or Mountain grevillea

Remember you still have to wash your feeders and change the nectar regularly. However in the cold it will last much longer, about 5-7 days. Bringing the feeder inside overnight will also help keep it from being a frozen block in the morning. However if you do bring feeders inside, make sure you put them back out as early in the morning as possible. The hummers will be awake and ready to feed shortly after sunrise.

About Melanie

Melanie has been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and photographing birds of all types.

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