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 hummingbird sightings in North America have been noticed since the 1950s, but due to more interest in these tiny birds and a better availability of supplemental feeders, 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 mid-October through mid-March, though a shorter winter is common in southern locations while a longer winter is the 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, including 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 overwinters not only in its central Mexico winter range, but also 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 an advantage in claiming territory to attract a mate, and 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, and 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 drip, 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 hummingbird visitors can be shocked to see these birds in wintertime, 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 to the birds so they can retreat from wind, rain and snow.
- Know how to contact a bird rescue organization or bird rehabilitator with hummingbird experience in case a distressed hummingbird is found so it can get expert help as quickly as possible.
Winter hummingbirds can be an unexpected treat for birders, and 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.
Photo – Anna's Hummingbird in Winter © Peter Stevens