Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

With the usually temperate Pacific Northwest battered by fierce winter storms, there’s a lot of concern about how the resident Anna’s Hummingbirds are handling brutal temperatures and frozen feeders, and what their human hosts can do to help them survive.

One way to help is to use a slightly stronger feeder solution. Many people, myself included, have switched to a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part sugar for all or most of the year. The sugar concentration (about 23% by weight) is closer to the average sugar content of hummingbird flower nectars (about 25%) than the standard 4:1 recipe (about 18%), and it has the advantage in winter of freezing a little more slowly.

It’s important not to go overboard, because more is not necessarily better. Sugar solutions sweeter than 3:1 can be syrupy enough to interfere with feeding efficiency, and this effect is magnified as temperatures plunge. There’s also the issue of dehydration, since nectar is a hummingbird’s main source of water (especially when everything else is frozen).

Even 3:1 will freeze if the temperatures dip low enough, but some winter hummingbird hosts have reduced the need for switching feeders by placing them next to a window (the more poorly insulated the better), inside an open shelter made of plywood, or under an outdoor-rated heat lamp.

If you make the switch to 3:1, you’ll need to adjust your expectations a bit. Since it contains more calories per drop than 4:1, your birds will not have to visit as often. It may look as though they’re avoiding the feeder when actually they’re just feeding more efficiently.

Related posts:

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

When the going gets chilly, the chill get crafty

Rethinking winter hummingbirds

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing


11 thoughts on “Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

  1. I seem to have a hummingbird “friend”. Can this be? I’m older and have an achy body. I go outside mornings to sit in a hot tub, and this Cutthroat? sweetie comes and sits in a very nearby tree – sometimes for half an hour or more. He may go sip at the feeder occasionally, but mostly he sits, facing me.

    We are having a freeze here now, and yesterday, when I was bringing out a fresh (un-frozen) feeder, he swooped onto it while I was carrying it close to my chest and only 1/2 step out the sliding glass door. He sat on the perch to eat for a bit while I stood still, then swooped away. Since then, he has been flying up to the glass door occasionally as well as his usual patterns.

    What can you tell me about people/hummingbird relationships? I feel like if I knew what to do, he might land on my finger some day.

    THANKS! Karen

  2. Hi, Karen,

    Hummingbirds are intelligent and curious creatures, and stories like yours suggest that they have the capacity to assess the risks and benefits of many things in their environments, including humans. I’ve heard many stories about hummingbirds that seemed to understand the relationship between people and feeders at some level, even to the point of seeking out and “scolding” the person who feeds them when the feeder is empty.

    They’re also suspicious and vigilant, taking an interest in all the goings on in their territories. That would explain why he watches you in the hot tub – you’re the most interesting thing in his world at that moment, but if a cat or hawk came through he’d be off in a flash to challenge it.

    Since he’s already so comfortable with you, you should be able to get him to sit on your finger if you hold it up next to the feeder for long enough.

  3. Thanks for the info. I don’t get what’s so interesting about me in the hot tub, as I don’t use the bubbles, and generally am not moving around. I do talk to him sometimes, though. He always perches facing me, but does look around – vigilant, as you say.

    Our unusual “blizzard” in Portland continues. Today my little friend landed, as before, on the feeder I was carrying the moment I stepped through the door. He stayed there for at least two minutes, right in front of my face, causally eating and sitting, while I studied his size, conformance and beautiful feathers and colors .

    I used to breed finches and parrots and recognized a posture of stress – no surprise in this weather. Is there anything I can do besides sugar water to give the local hummers help during this extended cold snap? We have had snow/ice for days and it will be going on for another week yet.

    I’ll see if he’d like to sit on my finger when the weather allows. I did notice a couple of years ago when I planted a new tree, the hummingbirds were the first, by far, to come inspect it.

    Thanks for your advice.


  4. The best short-term advice I have is what I put in the original post. Cultivating natural shelter in the form of evergreen (preferably broad-leafed) trees and shrubs is the best long-term approach to creating a safe winter haven.

  5. I live in south King County Washington & I have an adult & Baby Anna’s that are wintering over. We had a nasty deep freeze of down to 10 degrees & when my feeders froze I put my feeder under my out door light fixture & used a out door spot light in it. I haven’t had my feeders freeze since I did that.
    My hummers keep comming back & will feed while I am in the open door right next to their feeder. I tried the older heat generated Christmas lights but they didn’t create enough heat to keep the feeders from freezing but my spot light has & I leave it on 24/7 who cares about the electric bill when I love my hummers!!!

  6. Pingback: Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing « Life, Birds, and Everything

  7. Hello from the Old Dominion State, Virginia,
    We are see-swing from the mid sixties down to the low thirties each day/night cycle. Makes me nervous b/c I don’t have a single warming set-up ready for my two hummingbird nectar feeders. Am considering but cannot make a decision. Just hosted a hatch yr female Rufous Hummingbird that was banded, N87621, by Bruce Peterjohn and David Holmes on November 11, 2010. We do not any hummingbirds right now coming to these two feeders. Hoping I guess since as I was told, there have been unexpected arrivals here in Virginia as late as December. I am reading all of the great postings about hummingbirds! Might take me awhile. A whole new community of humm-enthusiasts to meet online and read about their experiences. Sheri, thanks for your site. It’s great! Sincerely, Fawn Palmer, Westmoreland County, VA

    • Hi, Fawn – welcome to the hummingbird community and thanks for reading LB&E!

      I wouldn’t worry too much until your overnight lows reach the 20s. The forecast low here last night was 16, and I didn’t see any signs of major freezing in the cozy-covered feeder this morning, though the unprotected one was starting to turn slushy by 10:30 last night.

      It’s definitely not too late for an overwintering vagrant hummingbird to show up. One of the theories that attempt to explain why some hummingbirds appear at feeders so late in the season is that they’ve been around all along but declining food or severe weather finally drives them to seek out feeders. Having just seen a Broad-billed Hummingbird for the first time in a couple of weeks after two nights in the teens, I tend to put some credence in that theory.

  8. I hope you read this as it’s nearing the end of 2012. I have one feeder under my porch in the front and one hanging from a window in the dinning room. Every morning I go out and “thump” the feeder to make sure the water goes down. Within a fews seconds to minutes my friend is here. I LOVE HIM! Now I have another one, a girl. I hope, I so hope they stay all winter. I will do everything I can to make them happy. I was thinking of making a shelter for the one on the window and then getting some broad leaf silk plants to weave and hang around it. I thought they might feel protected that way too. Any shared stories are welcoming to my eyes. Who would have thought I would fall in love with a bird!

  9. I live on the West Coast, and right now it hovers, between -4 and -9 C. I always thought Hummingbirds would go south, like many of our feathered friends, but I have one, cling-on. He bombs me when I go out to the wood shed for wood, so I found this sight, thawed out the HB feeder, cleaned it up and added a new 3:1 mixture. I hung the feeder up in the usual spot, a lilac buch, and my little friend was on it before it quit moving. He/she drank for about a minute, then hummed off. I shall bring the feeder in every night, especially in the cold weather from now on. I have other feeders all over my yard. Feels good to keep the birds a little more comfy with full bellies. Costs nothing.

    • Anna’s Hummingbirds are larger than the average northern hummingbird, which helps them tolerate cold temperatures better than their migratory cousins. They’re year-round residents in southwestern British Columbia and are even making inroads into southeastern Alaska! They couldn’t have expanded that far north without help from their human admirers, though. If you can’t commit to getting the feeder outside at first light every morning, try one or more of the methods described in my post “Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing.”

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