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. Dee says

    We live in the High Desert of Southern California and get Anna’s all year long. It’s wonderful! There’s even one male who literally lives in our backyard. You can always see him perched on a tree in the same spot on and off all day. Love it!

  5. Nancy Ford says

    I wintered a hummer a Ruby Throat about 6 years ago…. found him on bird feeder of sunflower seeds…. I brought him in warmed him up had a saga palm he was happy …. now for the food …. he stayed out during the day at night I brought him in… very time consuming…. I had to get a bird lover house sitter while I went for three days on a mini vacation… I took photos of him in the snow…

  6. Dianne Sharples says

    I live in the central San Joaquin Valley in California. Each year I have Annas stay over, and it has increased to a regular 20 that stay over. This year, however, i have over 100! i have to fill about 4 large size feeders daily as well as half of two others that are being strongly defended by one bird apiece. I do have lots of flowers they love, This year, because of the very late freeze, I’ve had far more blooming salvias and sages as well as a number of other blooms they enjoy. I’m well aware of the commitment it takes!

  7. Kathleen says

    It is January 2015 in SE Arizona. Zone 8A. High Desert area. It gets quite cold at night; teens to 20’s temps and 50’s to low 60’s day temps. I have spotted a hummingbird at my feeder on my porch two days ago. Is he one that lives here or just passing through. I have seen him/her since November. We have many hummingbirds during the spring/summer/fall season, but did not know they spend the whole winter here. Is this normal?

  8. 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

  9. Margaret Jo Brock says

    This is the third winter that I’ve had a female rufous hummingbird. Last winter was pretty severe here in NC, but she stayed until March. (The year before she left in early January.) I was surprised to see her again this November. I bring in her nectar if the temperatures are to be below freezing and put it out again each morning.

  10. Wayne says

    I have male and female Anna’s all winter here in Monterey County California, 7 miles inland from Monterey Bay. They tend to feed during the warm period of the day when the sun is high. I have some winter blooming succulents that help attract them, but they feed mostly on the nectar I keep out for them. I have come up with a way to keep the ants from invading the nectar feeders if anyone is interested. Write to me at fedrejord@gmail.com and I’ll send a photo.

  11. Sherry Sallee says

    We live in the corner of NE Oregon and have had “winter over” Anna’s the last 4 yrs… They arrive at the end of Sept and leave as late as middle of March… They are tough little birds… Last yr we had our first male Anna… he was with us for two months… this yr we have 2 female Anna’s.. been with us since Sept 8th… We have had temps as low as 4 above and 55 mph winds..and up to 10 inchs of snow.. We spend our days keeping their feeders thawed.. We have 2 heated feeders that really work good and when it gets really cold we keep a 100w bulb on the feeders in the trees they stay in…Such a joy to watch…

  12. Dee says

    Hi Cindy,
    Actually we just had our first hard freeze and I left the feeder up and it didn’t freeze up. I keep it up all year long for them. We live in the high desert of southern calif and have been having the coldest winter so far but I keep the feeder and the male Anna’s come all the time ; )

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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