I first publishing this blog post in 2009, but it is still useful and timely information.
Special note: A reader left a comment hoping an expert would "chime in" on whether or not it is wise to leave hummingbird feeders up during the winter. I would welcome comments from an expert, because I am not one, but I do have the words of an expert from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, answering this question. Here's the link.
My friend Chris sat up in her bed and pointed out the window. “Look quick,” she said. “There he is again.”
I turned to see a hummingbird at her feeder. No big deal, except for the fact that he appeared on a cold, snowy day in the middle of winter in Tacoma, Washington. Chris just came home from the hospital after hip replacement surgery. Her many visitors help alleviate the boredom and frustration of being stuck in bed, but none of her usual guests seem to perk her up as much as this little fellow. It pleased me to see her look so excited.
Before the surgery, a hummingbird surprised Chris near a hardy fuchsia bush where a few tough blooms still remained, so she hung the up the feeder again, after she had taken it down for the winter. Many people believe feeding hummingbirds in the late fall and winter creates an unnatural situation that discourages them from migrating to warmer climates and could cost them their lives. I’m no expert on this subject, but since I’d seen them in my yard too I decided to do a little investigating. I learned a lot.
First of all, here in the Pacific Northwest it is common for hummingbirds to spend the winter, especially Anna’s hummingbirds. They seem quite tolerant of cold temperatures. Some scientists believe the practice by homeowners of feeding them nectar during these months has actually allowed this very successful species to expand their territory because of this adaptation. Experts see no harm in keeping the feeders up. When very low temperatures mean the nectar in the feeder could freeze, some people hang heat lamps close by or have several rotating feeders so they can replace a frozen one with a warmer one from indoors, as needed.
The use of commercial food is discouraged because it contains dyes and sometimes preservatives that could be harmful. Homemade sugar water solution works fine and the normal ratio of one part sugar to four parts of water is recommended by most experts, or only slightly stronger. They need the water it contains too, not just the sugar. I also learned that hummingbirds don’t live on flower nectar alone and eat a lot of insects even in the winter. Avoiding pesticides remains as important as ever.
But what about shelter? Once the leaves have fallen from deciduous tress where they’d normally nest, hummingbirds often find shelter in evergreens. Here in the northwest we have plenty of those. Maybe you have these little winter visitors right in your own backyard without even knowing it. Putting out some nectar now might make it much easier for them to get through this cold season. And remember that any effort spent will come back to you in the form of hours of enjoyment watching them. It also helps to keep us in touch with nature during months when we stay indoors much more.
If you happen to be confined to the house, or even to your bed, remember how the world of nature still holds many delights if you just think about them and keep your eyes open. The thought of crocus bulbs waiting in cold soil under a blanket of snow can remind us that even during the bleakest days of winter we can be assured that spring and better times will come again. So does the thought of hummingbirds hiding in my trees. Just as my friend Chris is helping her hummingbird to survive, he is helping to cheer her every day.
Note: The photo used in this blog post was taken by Janet Allen and shared with me through her generosity and the help of Anne Marie Johnson and Pat Leonard of Cornell University's Project Feederwatch.
Here are some great links if you want more information on this subject:
Project Feederwatch (co-sponsored by Cornell University and Audubon)
National Audubon Society
Birds and Blooms Magazine
You might also be interested in a book called Peterson's Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America, by Sheri Williamson