If you have hummingbirds in your area during the winter, lucky you! While many hummingbirds migrate to warmer climates when the weather turns chilly, some overwinter in areas with relatively mild climates. For example, I live in the Pacific Northwest, and we have year-round Anna's hummingbirds. I always worry about them when the temperatures dip below freezing.
Fortunately, if the hummingbirds make your home theirs in the winter, you can help them to thrive and stay healthy, even when it's freezing outside.
Maintain a Hummingbird Feeder in Winter
Since flowers are scarce during the winter, nectar is at a premium. And while the hummingbirds can eat small inects, having a stocked feeder will provide additional fuel during the colder months. I keep our nectar feeder stocked all winter, but it takes more work than in the summer.
Make a Season-Long Commitment
We have "our" hummingbirds who spend all year with us. They were attracted to our feeders, and now they consider them theirs. So it's up to me to keep that feeder filled because we have become one of their main sources of food.
Hummingbird feeders attract hummingbirds. Once a hummingbird uses your feeder, it'll keep coming back looking for food in the same place. Since it may not find food elsewhere, don't stop feeding winter hummingbirds once you start. Instead, provide nectar at least until the spring flowers start blooming. It would be better to not feed them at all than to stop partway through winter.
Related: How to Make Hummingbird Nectar
Keep the Feeder From Freezing
Freezing feeders can be a real problem when temperatures dip. Ours freeze solid at about 29°F (-2°C). If you're going to put out a feeder during winter, you'll need to protect it — and the birds that use it. Landing on a frozen feeder or trying to drink frozen nectar can seriously injure a hummingbird.
Hang the feeder in an area where it's protected from the wind, such as where your home, garage, or shed will shield it. When the temperatures dip below freezing, you'll need to take some additional measures.
If you have a basin design feeder, consider getting a hummingbird hearth heater to help prevent the feeder and nectar from freezing. This device attaches to the bottom of the feeder. Other ways to help stop a feeder from freezing include:
- Attach a clamp to a spotlight and point it toward the feeder.
- Place the feeder near the type of heat lamp that people use for baby chickens.
- Wrap the feeder in Christmas lights (or similar) to help keep it warm.
- Enclose the feeder in a wool sock or scarf.
- If your feeder has a flat bottom, place it on a heating pad.
- Purchase a heated feeder (this is what we do).
- Rotate feeders throughout the day so one is always warm — bring the frozen feeder into warm up and put the fresh one outside every few hours.
- Tape hand warmers to the bottom of the feeder when it's super cold (we've done this in a pinch — depending on the hand warmer, it can keep the feeder from freezing for up to 10 hours).
Regardless of which of the above measures you use, it's a good idea to bring your feeder in overnight when temps are below freezing. Hummingbirds won't feed after dark, so there's no reason to keep a heater or light going overnight. Of course, you'll need to put it back out — and keep it warm — first thing in the morning so the birds can feed.
Stick With One Feeder
Winter hummingbird feeders are more labor-intensive than summer ones. It makes sense to put out just one feeder, even if you usually put out several over the summer. There are fewer birds around during winter, so it'll be best to put your time into keeping one filled and thawed rather than dealing with multiple feeders.
If you already have multiple feeders, you can use your stash to make things a little easier. Keep one outside and one at the ready. When the outdoor feeder freezes over or needs cleaning, bring it in and replace it with another.
Grow Plants That Flower in Cold Weather
A feeder isn't the only way to help keep hummingbirds healthy during winter. You can also help them by growing winter-blooming perennials like the ones below. Plants like these provide the birds with a nectar source when most plants that attract hummingbirds aren't in bloom. They also beautify your garden during the coldest months of the year.
Soft Caress Mahonia
Soft caress mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata) produces bright yellow flowers from late fall through early winter. Hummingbirds love its bright yellow flowers. This plant is hardy in USDA Zones 6 - 10.
Sasanqua camellia (Camellia sasanqua) is an evergreen shrub that produces red, pink, white, or purple blooms from late fall through January. Red ones are called yuletide camellias. This plant is hardy in USDA Zones 7 - 9.
Sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) is an evergreen shrub that produces small but fragrant off-white flowers from late winter through early spring. It's hardy in USDA Zones 6 - 10.
Winter daphne (Daphne odora) is an evergreen shrub that erupts in reddish/purple flowers from January through early spring. It's generally hardy in USDA Zones 6 - 9, though some varieties are hardy in Zones 4 and 5.
Avoid Using Insecticides
If you want to keep your yard as hummingbird-friendly as possible, it's important to avoid using insecticides and pesticides. This is true all the time — not just during winter. If you spray pesticide on plants that hummingbirds visit for nectar or near their feeders, they can ingest the substance directly and die. However, that's not the extent of the risk.
Hummingbirds don't just get nutrition from feeders and plants. They get the protein they need from eating insects. If a hummingbird eats an insect that has ingested pesticide, the pesticide will affect — and possibly kill — the bird. So, being careful to use pesticides only away from where hummingbirds eat isn't really sufficient to protect them (or other pollinators). It's best to avoid using these substances at all.
Recognize Hummingbirds in Torpor
If you come across a hummingbird that looks like it may have died during cold weather, don't panic — and don't pick it up to move it to a warmer location. Chances are that the bird is fine, but has gone into torpor, a natural state that allows the animal to conserve energy to help it survive extremely cold conditions.
When a hummingbird is in torpor, the animal's metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature will decrease significantly, and it will be all but impossible to tell if it is still breathing. It's easy to mistake a hummingbird in torpor for one that is dead, or nearly so.
If you come across a hummingbird in this state, it's best to just leave it alone — anything you do to intervene would harm the bird more than it might help. Once the temperature increases sufficiently, a hummingbird that has gone into torpor will slowly come out of it on its own.
Helping Winter Hummingbirds in Distress
If you come across a hummingbird that seems to be frozen to a feeder or otherwise in distress, don't try to intervene on your own. Instead, reach out to a wildlife rehabilitation agency in your area. If you need to find one, use this state-by-state directory of wildlife agencies to find out who you should call. If the agency you reach out to can't help you directly, they should be able to put you in touch with a local organization that can assist.