Attracting Hummingbirds in Winter

Attracting hummingbirds in winter is possible in some areas. Learn where and how.

Could any birds say summer more clearly than hummingbirds? Dancing before flowers to sip nectar, flashing and glittering in the light, they seem like tiny sunbeams come to life. The very idea of hummingbirds in winter sounds almost like a contradiction. But some hummingbirds do spend the winter in North America, and in recent years their numbers and range have been increasing.

Anna’s Hummingbirds in Winter and Beyond

Hummingbirds in winter

Anna’s Hummingbirds, seen year-round in coastal CaliforniaKathy Rowland

Of course, winter isn’t a harsh season everywhere. In coastal California, where the weather is moderate year-round, Anna’s hummingbirds have always been permanent residents. Historically, they were common from Baja north to the San Francisco Bay region. Around the 1930s, however, they began to spread. By the 1960s they were expanding eastward and beginning to nest in Arizona. At the same time, they pushed north through coastal Oregon and Washington and into southwestern British Columbia. Today you can see male Anna’s hummingbirds flashing their rose-red crowns and singing their scratchy songs in Vancouver, even on cold days in January.

What made it possible for these hummingbirds to expand their range so dramatically? The short answer is that gardeners did, by feeding hummingbirds well. With well-watered parks and yards boasting hardy plants blooming in every season, we created a landscape that would support more Anna’s hummingbirds year-round than most of their natural habitats. Add in a generous number of sugar-water feeders, and you have a hummer haven for all seasons.

Growing Numbers of Hummingbirds in Winter

A similar story has played out in the Eastern states. But the plot line there is more complicated and involves more different players.

Most kinds of hummingbirds in the U.S. live in the West, especially the Southwest. Originally, the only hummers east of the Great Plains were the familiar little ruby-throats. They were summer birds from the Gulf Coast to southern Canada, but almost all went to southern Mexico or Central America for the winter, with only a handful staying through the season in Florida. But recent decades have seen a virtual explosion in the numbers of Western hummingbirds wandering eastward.

attracting hummingbirds

The Rufous Hummingbird has been expanding its winter range in recent years.Dave Ryan

Leading the charge has been the rufous hummingbird. This copper-colored sprite is among the most numerous Western hummers, spending early summer in Northwestern forests, from Oregon and Montana to the edge of Alaska. In late summer and early fall, most of the population migrates south through mountain meadows of the Rockies, heading for a wintering range in Mexico. But every fall, a few rufous hummingbirds stray east out of the Rockies, winding up in the Southeastern U.S.

In centuries past, such strays probably would not have survived the winter—not unless they corrected their course and headed for Mexico. There simply weren’t enough wildflowers to sustain them through the season. But gardeners have changed that equation, too, by creating habitats made for attracting hummingbirds. Over the last century, legions of plant lovers throughout the South have developed year-round flower beds, using many flowers perfect for feeding hummingbirds. In the process, they have unwittingly changed the landscape to support hummingbirds in winter. Many people in the South now work at developing winter hummingbird gardens, putting up sugar-water feeders and planting any kind of red, tubular flower that will bloom when it’s cool, all in the name of attracting hummingbirds.

Rufous hummingbirds have now spread through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, with smaller numbers north along the Atlantic Coast to Virginia and beyond. And they seem to have brought their friends along. The calliope hummingbird, America’s tiniest bird at just over 3 inches, is now a regular in winter in the Southeastern states. So are the broad-tailed hummingbird, another bird from the Rockies, and the black-chinned hummingbird, the Western counterpart to the ruby-throat. During some recent seasons, 10 or more different species of hummers have spent the winter in the Gulf states.

Knowing that hummers will pause to investigate anything in their favorite color, one Louisiana birder even painted her house red! Any hummingbird that flew within a mile of that place probably detoured to check it out. Most people wouldn’t go this far, but if you live in a climate where it’s possible to keep some flowers blooming during the winter, why not try planting some hardy nectar sources for hummers? You just might make the joyful discovery that hummingbirds in winter aren’t that uncommon after all.

History of Hummingbirds in Winter

1950s: A few rufous hummingbirds show up in fall in Louisiana and stay through winter.

1970s: As people begin actively feeding hummingbirds, a few more hummingbirds start showing up and staying.

1990s: Dozens of hummingbirds are staying in Louisiana and beyond.

Currently: Hundreds of vagrant hummingbirds will likely winter all over the Southeast, including rufous, calliope and others, drawn by gardens designed with attracting hummingbirds in mind.

  1. patrici cole says

    Horrayyyy! I have been told some humming birds do stay in winter, Humming birds are my favorite they are such strong fighters! Keep warm my little soldiers!

  2. sharon hisey says

    we had in springfield oh 45505 October 29 2013 till December 10 2013 that’s 43 days a Rufous Hummingbird. was here through 3 snows and very cold weather. I had his feeder under a warming light in a box it was so cold have lots of picures he didn’t mind the box at all. was really weird and tiring getting up very early making sure feeder was still thawed.

  3. Carla Lee says

    Good Morning, live in western WA. We have Anna’s hummers all year, even in the snow. When it freezes hard, I keep two feeders ready. One outside and one in the fridge. We love these little birds. I take out early in the morning. They follow me around the garden in the summer and swim in the fountain.

    • Wes Mahan says

      Brilliant photos! You forgot to tell us what part of the country you’re in. I’ve had the same selection of birds in my yard in Portland, OR. But normally – except for this winter – we don’t get snow and cold as shown in your photos.

  4. Cindy says

    I have seen a Anna hummingbird at my feeder every morning since the 5th of Nivember. I forgot to take the feeder down after our first hard freeze when I cleaned out the garden. I live in South Eastern Washington State

Trackbacks

  1. […] Don’t forget that we are seeing more hummingbirds overwintering here. The one we are seeing here is the rufous hummingbird.  While most head to Mexico, a few stray east of the Rockies and end up in the S.E. In the past they might not have survived, but with the increase in gardening and native plants, plant lovers have unwittingly changed the landscape to help support winter hummingbirds with nectar sources. BUT, be aware that if you plan to keep your hummingbird feeder up, it requires some extra responsibility in order to do more good than harm. You MUST keep the syrup from freezing which generally requires something like a heat lamp to keep feeders thawed in sub-freezing temps. You can also keep extra feeders inside and swap out as needed. If a hummingbird becomes dependent on the food you provide and you fail to keep that food there, it could starve. So…please be aware of the commitment before you start. http://www.birdsandblooms.com/Birds/Hummingbirds/Hummingbird-Facts/Hummingbirds-in-Winter […]

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