Hummingbirds are not typically associated with winter, but depending on where you are birding during the colder months of the year is possible to see and enjoy these flying jewels even in cold regions. Winter hummingbirds are nothing new, and sightings in North America have been recorded since the 1950s. Due to more interest in these tiny birds and better availability of supplemental feeders, however, more and more hummingbirds have been staying further north during the winter since the 1990s.
Winter Hummingbird Species
There are several species of hummingbirds in North America that can be regularly seen during the winter, but when is winter? In regions where summer hummingbirds are regular visitors, the winter months for off-season hummingbirds are generally considered from late October through mid-March. A shorter winter is common in southern locations while a long winter is a norm in the north.
- Anna's hummingbird: This western hummingbird is a year-round resident of the Pacific coast from northern Baja to as far north as Vancouver and southern British Columbia. They are also found year-round in southwestern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.
- Costa's hummingbird: Another western hummingbird species, Costa's hummingbirds are year-round residents in the southwestern United States. Their range includes parts of California and Arizona, as well as Baja and western Mexico.
- Ruby-throated hummingbird: The most common summer hummer in the eastern United States, the ruby-throated hummingbird winters in small numbers in extreme southern Florida. Depending on the winter climate, these birds may also be seen further north during mild seasons.
- Rufous hummingbird: Primarily a western breeding species, the rufous hummingbird generally overwinters in central Mexico. More and more of these audacious hummers, however, have also be noted wintering throughout the southeastern United States and along the Gulf Coast. Winter populations are highly variable but have been increasing in recent years.
- Broad-billed hummingbird: This western hummingbird is locally common in the southwestern United States during the summer, and in some winters it can be found as far north as southern and central Arizona.
- Buff-bellied hummingbird: A year-round bird in the southern tip of Texas, the buff-bellied hummingbird expands its range during some winters to include the Gulf Coast as far east as Louisiana and Mississippi. These extended years are not common but do occur regularly.
In addition to these winter hummingbirds, other hummingbird species can occasionally be found as vagrant birds far outside their expected winter locations, bringing a touch of summer excitement to winter birders.
How Hummingbirds Survive Winter
When a winter hummingbird is sighted, the first concern most birders have is why such a tiny bird would take its chances in such an inhospitable environment, and how can it possibly survive.
There are several reasons why a hummingbird may be seen during the winter months, even if it is not a year-round resident in a cold weather area. First, the species may be an early or late migrant seeking a spring advantage in claiming territory to attract a mate or dawdling along on its autumn migration. In either case, an early or late season storm can catch the bird off guard. Younger birds, in particular, may get trapped in winter areas because of their inexperience with migration. Any age hummingbird might fall victim to storms or other factors that push it far off course and into winter's path.
Regardless of why a hummingbird is spotted in the north when temperatures dip, its survival can be uncertain. Hummingbirds can easily enter torpor on cold nights, however, which allows them to conserve energy to survive lower temperatures when food is not as readily available. They will also change their diets in the winter to eat more insects when nectar flowers are not available. There are other ways birds can keep warm in winter, including hummingbirds, and generally, overwintering hummingbirds stay in areas with mild winters that are less risky.
How to Help and Attract Winter Hummingbirds
Birders familiar with summer hummer visitors can be shocked to see hummingbirds in winter, but there are ways to attract and help them survive even the most frigid season.
- Plant flowers that attract hummingbirds with both early and late bloom cycles so there will be a natural nectar source available for as many months as possible.
- Minimize the use of pesticides and insecticides in the yard so there will be a ready population of insects for these tiny birds to eat.
- Take steps to keep hummingbird nectar from freezing during cold nights, and keep the feeders filled with a fresh supply so the birds can reliably feed.
- Provide adequate shelter for hummingbirds through bird-friendly landscaping or by leaving a sheltered porch or deck area accessible so the birds can retreat from wind, rain, and snow.
- Use extra red accents in the yard and garden, particularly during early spring and late fall, to catch hummingbirds' attention and let them know a nectar feeder is nearby.
- Know how to contact a bird rescue organization or bird rehabilitator with hummingbird experience in case a distressed hummingbird is found. Getting expert help as quickly as possible can make a life-or-death difference for hummingbirds.
Winter hummingbirds can be an unexpected treat for birders. Understanding how these tiny birds come to winter areas and how they survive freezing conditions is the first step toward enjoying them safely and encouraging them to stay.