Hummingbirds in Winter?

By Derek Stoner, Family Programs Coordinator

A young male Rufous Hummingbird sips from a nectar feeder in Avondale, PA.  October 2009 photo by Kathy Weaver.
A young female Rufous Hummingbird sips from a nectar feeder in Avondale, PA. October 2009 photo by Kathy Weaver.

The 30-degree weather this past weekend did not faze the young female Rufous Hummingbird visiting a backyard in Avondale, PA.  Weighing in at 3 grams and possessing a stove-hot metabolism with a heart beat of 600 beats per minute, this tiny bird is thriving on the nectar of late-blooming flowers, tiny insects and spiders, and a generous suppply of sugar water offered by the owners of a vibrant backyard habitat.  

An immature male Rufous Hummingbird perches on a feeder in Dover, DE, on January 22, 2009.
A young male Rufous Hummingbird perches on a feeder in Dover, DE. Notice the spider silk caught in his beak, as spiders are a key dietary component of hummingbirds in winter. January 22, 2009 photo by Derek Stoner.
How do they survive the cold?  These hummingbirds have the unique ability to “turn down the thermostat” so to speak, through a process called torpor.  As the hummingbird settles in for the night to sleep, their heartbeat slows to less than 100 beats per minute.  The torpid state has been described as “suspended animation” as the bird enters a zone of semi-consciousness.
A Rufous hummingbird perches on branch on January 22, 2009.  Photo by Derek Stoner.
A Rufous Hummingbird perches on branch on January 22, 2009. This bird survived overnight temperatures of 5 degrees! Photo by Derek Stoner.
The obvious question is: what is this hummingbird doing here right now?  Is he lost?  Is he going to survive the cold winter?  Fortunately, scientists(bird banders in particular) in recent years have started to unravel this story of how hummingbirds are spending the winter on the East Coast.  There are several bird banders in the region who are working to solve this mystery.  Well-known author and bird bander Scott Weidensaul’s website has an excellent discussion of this research:  http://www.scottweidensaul.com/research_hummingbirds.html
A young male Rufous Hummingbird stretches his wings.  December 1, 2006 photo by Jim White.
A Rufous Hummingbird stretches his wings. December 1, 2006 photo by Jim White.
The Rufous Hummingbird is the most widely-distributed hummingbird in North America, breeding as far north as Alaska.  The Rufous has been recorded in every US state except Hawaii, and undertakes the longest migration of any North American hummingbird.  The majority of Rufous Hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and Central America, but new evidence points to the fact that more of these birds are wintering in the eastern United States than we may realize. 
A Rufous Hummingbird visitng Jim White's feeder in Winter 2006.  Notice the silver band on the bird's leg!  Photo by Jim White.
A Rufous Hummingbird visiting Jim White's feeder in Winter 2006. Notice the silver band on the bird's leg! Photo by Jim White.
Other species of hummingbird are also being documented wintering along the East Coast, from Calliope to Allen’s to Broad-billed Hummingbirds.  Scientists and birders alike are re-thinking their ideas about hummingbird migration and the selection of wintering habitat.
There is a lot more to learn about these amazing hummingbirds.   Stay tuned for part two of this story! 

6 thoughts on “Hummingbirds in Winter?”

  1. Sandy Dennison-James

    I’m inspired to put at least one feeder back out. At what temperature does a 4-1 sugar solution freeze?

  2. Sandy-
    The sugar water will freeze at 32 degrees, as it unfortunately does not have the same properties as salt water! The best solution to keeping the feeder from freezing in winter is to simply bring the feeder in at night and put it out in the morning. Labor-intensive, but worth the effort if a hummingbird shows up! – Derek

  3. Joe, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are in Delaware until about mid-October, when the last of them come through in migration. After that, there is the possibility of attracting a vagrant western hummingbird to your feeder. I usually leave the feeder up until Christmas since the mid-Atlantic region sees at least a few (and sometimes dozens) of Rufous Hummingbirds, so you never know, you might get lucky and have one of these rarities visit your feeder between mid-October and late fall.

  4. We saw a lone straggler Mississippi Kite two weeks ago (October 20th), traipsing directly South, just above our tall Pines here in Columbia, SC. All other MKs left a full month previous. Just wondering – could this loner have been injured and just released? Why might one stray and lag?

  5. Just saw a hummingbird in the greater Bethany Beach area on 12/30/2020. So odd. It was visiting my Camilla that is blooming. I had to search out how odd this visit was and that’s how I found your posts.

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