Hummingbird Torpor Looks Strange but It’s Totally Normal

Hummingbirds can drop their internal temperature, inducing a temporary state of torpor, which means they need less energy, and therefore less food, to withstand frigid temperatures.

If you spot a motionless hummingbird in an unusual position, don’t be alarmed. Learn what the experts say about hummingbird torpor.

Where do hummingbirds sleep at night?

Hummingbirds Enter Torpor to Conserve Energy

Mickelsen 112314Mickelsen / Birds & Blooms
The behavior shown here is hummingbird torpor, and is no cause for alarm.

“I saw a hummingbird hanging upside down from my feeder by one foot. As I neared, it flew away. What happened to it?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Margaret Hocker of Metropolis Illinois.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman: Hummingbirds have a bizarre way of conserving energy. Usually at night, during periods of cold and sometimes when they’re perched at a feeder, hummingbirds can enter a deep, sleep-like state known as torpor, when all body functions slow dramatically. Metabolism slows by as much as 95 percent, and heart rate and body temperature drop significantly. Torpor allows them to conserve precious energy and survive surprisingly low temperatures.

Torpor Helps Hummingbirds Survive in Cold Weather

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Anna’s hummingbirds may enter torpor when temperatures drop below freezing.

Hummingbirds visit my feeders every day, year round. Where do they sleep at night in chilly weather, and how do they survive the cold? asks Kay Teseniar of Kelso, Washington.

Kenn and Kimberly: Hummingbirds often find a twig that’s sheltered from the wind to rest on for the night. Also, in winter they can enter a deep sleep-like state known as torpor. All body functions slow down dramatically; metabolism drops by as much as 95 percent, and heart rate and body temperature decline significantly. In spite of their fragile appearance, they’re tough little critters!

Follow these expert tips to attract hummingbirds in winter.

248506590 1 Mindy Musick King Bnbhc20Courtesy Mindy Musick King
Spring snow doesn’t bother broad-tailed hummingbirds.

“This male broad-tailed hummingbird (above) left his more tropical winter home in the south and arrived in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains just in time for a spring snow. Not to worry, they are able to survive freezing temperatures by entering a state of torpor, where their metabolism slows way down to conserve energy during the night. Early in the morning, he was already in position on his favorite perch keeping his eye on the sky to fiercely protect his preferred feeder on our deck. By mid-morning, the sun had melted away, and all was warm and bright. These little birds may be small, but they are mighty!” says Mindy Musick King.

Is it safe to freeze hummingbird nectar?

Hummingbird Hanging Upside Down

Hummingbird TorporHailshadow/Getty Images
During hummingbird torpor, metabolism lowers and body temperature and heart rate drops.

“One morning, a female hummingbird landed on the feeder, slowly leaned back and eventually ended up upside down. She ignored the other birds and, after a few minutes, flew away. What causes this behavior?” asks Donna Jenkins of Chesapeake, Virginia.

Kenn and Kimberly: This odd behavior seems to happen because hummingbirds have weak feet and extreme variations in energy levels. Hummingbirds enter torpor (lowered breathing and heart rate) to conserve energy. This usually happens on cold nights, but sometimes they go into a torpid state during the day. When they’re sitting, their feet automatically clamp down, but on a smooth perch, they may slip and wind up hanging upside down. Usually this doesn’t last long and the bird isn’t any worse off when it awakens.

Discover more jaw-dropping hummingbird facts.

Freeze Posture in Birds

Sony DscCourtesy Michele Stark
Red-breasted nuthatch hanging motionless below a suet feeder

“This red-breasted nuthatch didn’t move for at least 10 minutes. Do nuthatches go into torpor, like hummingbirds, or was something else going on?” asks Michele Stark of Grand Blanc, Michigan.

Kenn and Kimberly: What your little nuthatch is doing isn’t torpor. You witnessed a reaction to a predator. We call this “freeze posture,” and it happens when there’s a predator nearby. Even when birds at feeders appear to be completely relaxed, they are on constant alert for predators. When a hawk swoops in, smaller birds have to make a split-second decision—fly for cover or freeze. Often they’ll decide that the best chance for survival is to freeze rather than take their chances in flight against something like sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks, which are incredibly fast flyers and masters of aerial maneuvers.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.