Hummingbirds are the smallest birds on the planet. That begs the question. How do such frail bodies cope with the colder months of the year?
Many sightings in North America prove that winter hummingbirds actually exist and that the cold weather doesn’t pose much of a threat to their tiny frames.
According to studies done by the Oregon State ecologist Adam Hadley, birds that tend to head north during the winter months possess this “mini-hibernation” mode that plummets their body temperatures temperature from 107 to 48 degrees.
This “energy-conservation” mode is known as torpor. The heart rate and metabolic rate of a bird in torpor mode drop significantly, enabling the bird to survive extended periods of time without much food.
For example, the heart rate of a blue-throated hummingbird drops from 1,260 heartbeats per minute all the way to 50-180 beats per minute. Also, many sightings prove that hummingbirds are capable of feeding in colder weather conditions.
Hummingbirds That Can Be Seen in the Winter
In North America, regions that are rich with hummingbirds in the summer season will probably be home for a lot of wintering hummers from late October up until the middle of March. When it comes to southern regions, however, winter hummingbirds won’t be as prominent, considering the fact that the winter is shorter in such regions than the northern ones.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the most common type of hummers sighted in the summer months in the eastern United States. In the winter, ruby-throated hummers migrate to southern Florida in small numbers. You can also see some of these birds further north when the climate is mild.
Anna’s hummingbird is a western hummingbird that’s often sighted in the Pacific Coast. More specifically from northern Baja to Vancouver and the southern part of British Columbia. These hummers can also be found in northwestern Mexico and in southwestern Arizona throughout the year.
Broad-billed hummingbirds are a commonly-seen species of the hummingbird family. They’re often found in the southwestern United States in the summer and can be found in the far north in the winter months like in central and southern Arizona.
Rufous hummingbirds are another western species that you’d find wintering in central Mexico. The winter population of these birds is variable, but there has been an increase in their number in recent years. Sightings of this type of hummingbirds have increased along the Gulf Coast and in the southeastern regions of the United States as well.
Costa’s hummingbird is yet another beautiful western hummer that can be found year-round in the southwestern regions of the United States. These birds have a pretty wide range, including Arizona, California, western Mexico, and Baja.
Buff-bellied hummingbird can be found in southern Texas throughout the whole year. These birds tend to widen its range during the winter months. While not common, it can happen very frequently. In the winter, you can find these birds roaming the skies of the Gulf Coast and going as far as Mississippi and other eastern parts of the United States.
How Do Hummingbirds Cope with the Winter?
For birds that aren’t so fond of the winter season, what are the reasons behind the sightings of numerous species of hummingbirds in the winter? Several reasons come to mind.
The wintering hummingbird can be an early or late migrant that seeks to mark a territory to attract mates. It can also be a bird that was just too slow to catch up with the autumn migration party.
Juvenile hummingbirds can easily find themselves trapped in wintery areas due to their lack of experience when it comes to migration.
There’s no specific reason as to why a hummingbird can be found in winter areas, but one thing is certain, any hummingbird no matter what age it is can find itself steering off course, whether it’s a hindering storm or migration inexperience.
Like we’ve mentioned earlier, hummingbirds can go into torpor mode when the temperature dips significantly. However, regardless of how much energy they can conserve, their survival is pretty uncertain.
In addition to going into torpor, there are other ways that a hummingbird can use to stay warm in the winter. Further, overwintering hummingbirds tend to look for areas where the winter climate is relatively milder than where they’re at currently so that the risk of not surviving is reduced.
It’s also worth noting that due to the lack of nectar-producing flowers in the winter months, hummingbirds are forced to switch up their diet and consume insects instead.
How to Help Wintering Hummingbirds?
So what can we do as birders to help increase the survival chances of our fluffy friends in the winter months? There a few things you can do. You can first start by planting nectar-producing flowers that hummingbirds are so in love with.
If possible, opt for plants that bloom red or orange flowers because these specific colors tend to attract hummingbirds the most. This way hummers can find a reliable source of nourishment in both the early and late blooming cycles of these plants.
If planting nectar-producing flowers is out of the equation, then you may want to invest in some bird feeders and learn how to make nectar at home. Yes, nectar can be made at home. The only ingredients you’ll need are water and refined white sugar. Here’s the recipe.
One thing you need to keep in mind is that nectar can get frozen during cold winter nights, so it’s advised to take the feeders down and leave them inside the house until the next morning. Most birds tend to be asleep at night anyway.
Another thing you can do to help these tiny creatures out is to provide them with a shelter that can protect them from rain and storms, just don’t forget your rain jacket if you’re watching them!
Here’s a detailed YouTube tutorial that demonstrates how to build a bird sanctuary in your backyard. A sheltered porch would be an ideal start.
There are plenty of natural ways for you to create a bird shelter, planting some trees and a few shrubs being the most advised option to go with. Tall grass and tree cavities also make for great natural bird shelter.
When it comes to choosing the type of plants, it’s advised to go for native plants since the birds will be more familiar with them. moreover, native plants will easily thrive with minimal care on your part, so that you won’t have to take care of both plants and birds, at least not to a tiring extent.
As far as artificial shelters, you can go with birdhouses to provide the safety that birds require in such extreme weather conditions. The great thing about birdhouses is that they come in various shapes and sizes, so you’ll easily find ones that can accommodate tiny hummers.
Roost boxes are also great to implement in your backyard. A roost box can provide all needed protection for a small flock of wintering hummingbirds. If you’re lucky, you can find birdhouses that can be converted to roost boxes.
You can combine all of these ideas to create shelter at various heights. Implementing layers of plants and trees, along with placing birdhouses or roost boxes here and there, will help provide winter accommodation for all birds and not just hummingbirds.
The last thing you want to happen is for your shelters to be damaged by predators, so you may want to place them in safe areas that are out of the climber’s reach. If necessary, use baffles to protect your shelters from climbers.
Remember when we said that hummingbirds love to feed on insects? Well, if you usually like to use pesticides and insecticides on your plants, it may be a good idea to cease from doing so that wintering hummingbirds can find insects to feed on.
To attract more hummingbirds during the early spring and late fall, what you can do is use some red accents around your backyard and garden. You can use anything from child toys to reddish pieces of cloth. This helps garner the attention of hummers so that they can discover the nectar feeders.
The migration of hummingbirds isn’t a well-documented activity, but the few facts we’re aware of has helped us conclude hummingbirds tend to migrate northward and southward.
The vast majority of hummingbirds tend to spend the winter in Mexico or Central America and begin to migrate north to where their breeding takes place in the southern United States, then they move on to areas further north later in the months of the spring.
Here’s a map of hummingbird spring migration activities and sightings in the United States and Canada from 2014 to 2019. Please note that we didn’t partake in the creation of this map.