Hummingbirds listen to their biological clock which prompts them to either begin their migration south to Mexico for the winter or to stay behind and become a year-round resident.
For a hummingbird enthusiast, whether to keep a fresh supply of nectar all year round, especially during the winter months, can be a dilemma.
Providing hummingbirds with fresh nectar during the cold months does not deter them from leaving. It provides a lifeline of valuable food for hummingbirds that choose to stay or is a temporary oasis for those just passing through as they migrate south to their warmer destinations.
Should I keep my hummingbird feeders out during the winter?
Hummingbird enthusiasts should commit to maintaining feeders for the entire winter, or take feeders down at the sign of the first frost. Hummingbird feeders left up during the winter are critical sources of nutrition for hummingbirds that do not migrate and are a welcome sight to migrating hummingbirds.
Some types of hummingbirds are known to exist within certain established ranges, either as year-round natives or as part of a migratory cycle.
Annual residents who rely heavily on well supplied feeders year-round are especially in need during the fall and winter when natural nectar producing plants are unavailable.
Once hummingbirds become dependent on the feeder for winter nutrition, taking them down could be life threatening.
The National Institutes of Health or (NIH) confirms that hummingbirds are affected by two strong biological clocks that work together. The circadian or daily internal clock and the circannual rhythm or yearly clock.
Changes in weather temperature or time of season, the decline in food supply and shorter days with less sunlight are important factors triggering the beginning of migration.
Leaving your hummingbird feeders out past the winter frost will not detour the hummingbirds from migrating. Their own bodies will signal to them the right time to migrate. Do not force them to leave but let nature take its course.
Two known year-round hummingbird residents throughout the United States include the Anna’s hummingbird on the west coast and the Ruby-throated hummingbird on the east coast.
While both the Anna’s and Ruby-throated hummingbirds are year-round residents, some of each species choose to migrate.
In some cases, migrants who choose not to relocate and stay behind for the winter are too young or too old to travel. Other scenarios include sick or injured hummingbirds. This population that chose not to migrate still need to be noticed and provided nourishment during the cold winter months when natural nectar is scarce.
Anna’s hummingbirds have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird species that rarely migrate south for the winter. They are the only species in North America that reside year-round all along the Pacific Ocean encompassing the western coast of California, Oregon Washington and as far north as the southern tip of British Columbia and into Alaska.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Anna’s hummingbirds are the only species found in Oregon throughout the winter. They battle strong cold snowy winters exposing themselves to shorter days with limited food sources.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Washington states that Anna’s hummingbirds are the only hummingbird to stay year-round on the Pacific Coast. They are commonly seen and are abundantly active in the western area of the Puget Trough ecoregion.
Since the natural abundance of nectar becomes scarce during the winter months; to stay alive, the native non-migratory Anna’s hummingbirds in Washington rely heavily on the food sources provided by local hummingbird enthusiasts.
Below is a video showing the importance of keeping feeder nectar available and in fluid form for hungry hummingbirds during cold winter temperatures.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are extremely common as year-round resident natives in southern Florida and in the state of North Carolina.
While Ruby-throated hummingbirds are seen year round, there are those who prefer to migrate south to Mexico and South America for the winter. Hummingbird migration on the East Coast mirrors the Appalachian Trail which divides North Carolina.
Females and juveniles are one to two weeks behind and mimic the same paths as males.
Most North Western United States species such as the Rufous and the Black-chinned hummingbirds migrate south to Mexico and Central America every winter. The full migration journey south starting in Alaska and ending in Mexico is roughly 4,000 miles.
Hummingbirds travel and migrate twenty-five to thirty miles per hour covering twenty-three miles per day. They do not all migrate at the same time.
Hummingbirds routinely gain 25% to 50% of their body weight by consuming nectar from feeders, flowering plants, and catching bugs in mid air for protein.
However, for the long migration during the spring and fall, they double their body weight if given the opportunity to acquire a larger amount of energy reserves before traveling south for their long journey.
An increase of visitors at the feeders is expected, therefore, maintaining feeders is critical in order to maximize food consumption that prepares their bodies for migration.
Eastern United States migration hummingbird species such as the Ruby-throated hummingbirds in Florida and North Carolina are spotted in late March through the end of October.
Migrating male Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the first to arrive in the spring and the first to migrate south to Mexico and South America for the winter.
There are also many Ruby-throated hummingbirds who do not migrate and are considered year-round residents.
Some migrating hummingbirds may stop their journey in Texas, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, however most continue their travels until they reach Mexico.
Midwestern United States migration hummingbird species according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, states that hummingbird feeder activity begins in early spring and continues through late summer. The most common and popular visitor is the Ruby-throated hummingbird.
Recently, the Rufous hummingbird species is choosing to route themselves through the Midwest and are being noticed outside of their normal range during the fall migration; especially later in October and November. The biologists do not fully understand this reasoning.
The brutal harsh winters of the Midwest make it difficult for Rufous hummingbirds to stay around for “long periods” of time. Even though the Rufous hummingbirds are able to lower their metabolism to survive cold winters for “shorter periods” they eventually listen to their biological clock and migrate south to warmer climates even with available feeders staying out through the winter.
Hummingbirds have excellent memories and will investigate old hummingbird feeder locations years after the feeder has been removed. Knowing this, they greatly appreciate well maintained feeders throughout the year.
There is a difference of opinion among the experts regarding leaving hummingbird feeders out during the winter months.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services objects to leaving hummingbird feeders up past the fall as this will discourage hummingbirds to migrate. The Farmers’ Almanac experts explain that hummingbird migration is based on an internal circannual rhythm and the amount of daylight that is available. Their perspective is that by leaving the feeders up during the fall and winter will not hinder the hummingbird’s instinct to migrate.
The recommendation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services is to keep your feeders up and fully stocked with fresh nectar through early fall and remove them at the first signs of a cold snap or when witnessing frozen nectar. This will provide crucial nectar for the hummingbird that is migrating and will ensure that they will not stay.
If you live in an area where the winters are extremely cold and do not want to leave your feeders up or are wondering how to keep your nectar from freezing, the Farmers’ Almanac suggests taking down your feeder 2-3 weeks after you have spotted your last hummingbird drink from your feeder during their migration transition.
Either way, when considering this dilemma, hummingbird enthusiasts have a moral duty to provide continuous feeder availability for both the resident locals as well as those migrating, if the enthusiast decides to provide feeders during the winter.
Feeding Hummingbirds During the Winter
When all of the nectar flowering plants are dormant for the winter and natural insects are scarce, providing homemade nectar without using artificial dye is the best option. Making your own homemade nectar is easy, cost-effective and all around safer for the hummingbirds.
The two main ingredients are sugar and water. When measured and dissolved correctly, it closely resembles the nectar found in flowers that attract hummingbirds.
The consensus for the best homemade hummingbird nectar recipe is a 1 to 4 ratio of sugar to water. This recipe consists of 1 cup granulated white sugar dissolved in 4 cups of spring or filtered water.
Hummingbirds that choose to be year-round residents rely heavily on available clean feeders away from harsh outside elements in order for them to survive the rough winters.
If you chose to continue to provide nectar in liquid form, the next obstacle to overcome is keeping your hummingbird nectar from freezing. The good news is that there are simple solutions to prevent nectar from freezing. This helps hummingbirds obtain the desperately needed nutrition in order to survive the cold winter temperatures.
Below is another video showing the importance of keeping feeder nectar available and in fluid form for hungry hummingbirds during cold winter temperatures while avoiding to not harm the hummingbird population.
After researching the migration patterns of the hummingbirds on the Pacific Coast, the Midwest and the Atlantic Coast, it seems to me that there are year-round resident hummingbirds on the East and West coasts of the United States. The hummingbirds in the middle of the United States in the Midwest migrate south to warmer lands.
Since there are resident hummingbirds in cold climates on both sides of the U.S. I feel obligated to help them survive during the cold and bitter months by providing critical nectar refueling stations for both those that are locals as well as for those stragglers that might be migrating.
I agree with providing the hummingbirds with fresh nectar however, I disagree with removing the feeders at the first sign of frost or during the winter. There are some hummingbirds that are local and do not migrate that depend on the nectar from the feeders for their survival.
I want to help the young, old and injured hummingbirds that simply cannot migrate. In my opinion, taking down hummingbird feeders after other sources of nectar are killed by frost is inhumane.
Happy Hummingbird Watching!