How Do Hummingbirds Survive the Winter?

Hummingbirds are tropical birds at heart.

To survive cold winters, it’s only natural for most — although not all — hummingbirds to fly south to Mexico or Central America until the weather warms up again.

But why do hummingbirds bother with migrating twice a year? Why don’t they just spend their whole lives in the tropics?

The truth is, most hummingbirds do exactly that. Of the 330 species of hummingbirds found in North and South America, only 15 bother migrating north and south every year to spend their summers in the US and Canada, as far north as Alaska and the Yukon.

For the plucky hummingbirds that venture into North America, the advantage of making the long trips north and south every few months is lesser competition for food.

In the tropics, there are hummingbirds with 3-inch (75 mm) bills that have sharp tips like daggers.

There are hummingbirds that have beaks with serrated edges, like a steak knife.

And there are snakes waiting to devour the unsuspecting hummingbird that ventures into their territory.

North American hummingbirds spend their summers in North America to escape dangerous competitors in the tropics.

Here, they can raise their young in relative safety.

When You Have Winter Hummingbirds, You Need to Do Some Things Differently

A hummingbird’s decision to spend the winter in your backyard can be, well, bird-brained.

There are very few locations in the United States that won’t have at least brief periods of dangerously cold weather for hummingbirds.

And if a hummingbird spends the winter in your backyard, it will have some needs that it doesn’t in the summer.

Following are some of the things you can do to help hummingbirds survive the cold winters:

  • Hummingbirds can starve in just hours when they don’t have a food supply. If you attract hummingbirds to your backyard for the winter, it is important to give them access to sugar water 24 hours a day, every day.
  • Hummingbirds will have a favorite feeder. Don’t take down feeders before spring, so hummingbirds don’t have to fight for access to a feeder only recently hung up.
  • Hummingbirds will mostly use feeders around dawn and dusk in the summer, but during the winter they will seek sugar water 24 hours a day. It’s important for their survival to make sure the feeder never runs out of sugar water. The most important time to have sugar water in the feeder is between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, usually the warmest time of day.
  • Young hummingbirds (hatched the summer before) will approach the feeder at night to avoid competition. A night light helps them find the feeder.
  • Hummingbirds won’t waste energy fighting in the winter if they have a dependable source of food. They will fight when there is a net gain of energy from running off the other bird.

The survival rate for hummingbirds that spend the winter outside the tropics is not very high.

Even in California, as few as 4% of first-year hatchlings will live to the next year.

Hummingbirds that stay in warm climates may lay eggs and raise hatchlings as often as four times a year, but only one chick is likely to live long enough to replace each parent bird.

What About Helping Hummingbirds That Fly South for the Winter?

The majority of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds stay at their homes in the eastern half of North America only long enough to give their chicks a good start in life.

Ruby Throated hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

They will start their trek south as soon as mid-July, although birds in southerly locations may stay in your backyard until mid-September or even the first week in October.

Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend the winter in southern Mexico and Central America.

For its size, the Rufous Hummingbird makes the longest migratory flight in the world. Each Rufous Hummingbird flies a distance equal to 78.4 million body lengths.

Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird

This is more flying than the Arctic Tern, which flies 52 million body lengths between the Arctic and Antarctic every year.

These birds arrive at their breeding grounds in Washington state and Canada in May, after a long flight up the Pacific Coast.

They raise the next generation and start back through the Rocky Mountains to their winter home in Mexico.

Black-Chinned Hummingbirds are common backyard birds in the larger cities of the West during the summer.

Black-Chinned Hummingbirds

Some of them spend the winter on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, but most fly to western Mexico.

Backyard bird enthusiasts in Texas and Louisiana can follow the same rules for keeping birds over the winter mentioned above.

The beautiful Broad-Billed Hummingbirds are the most colorful hummingbirds commonly seen in the US and Canada.

Broad-Billed Hummingbirds

The males have an emerald body, a sapphire coat, and a ruby red bill.

Broad-billed hummingbirds seek out backyard feeders in a tiny area of the United States between Tucson, Arizona, and Deming, New Mexico.

They spend their winters along the Pacific Coast of the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds, Calliope Hummingbirds, Costa’s Hummingbirds, Lucifer Hummingbirds, and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds all spend the winter in Mexico.

More and more hummingbirds are becoming nonmigratory.

The areas of the United States where hummingbirds are backyard birds in the winter are expanding every year.

Some Hummingbirds Don’t Migrate in Winters

Some hummingbirds like North America so well that they don’t migrate south for the winter.

And there is even a hummingbird in South Texas that flies north for the winter.

Let’s take a closer look at the species of hummingbirds that might like your backyard so well that they decide to stay all year-round.

Allen’s Hummingbird

Allen’s Hummingbird is a pugnacious tiny fighter found in backyard gardens from Santa Barbara up the Pacific Coast to southern Oregon.

Allen’s Hummingbird

Until about 100 years ago, it was mostly found on Santa Catalina Island, off the shore of Los Angeles.

It was brought to the mainland and has been searching for backyard feeders ever since.

Even male Allen’s Hummingbirds will only grow to reach 3 to 3-1/2 inches (76 to 99 mm) in length.

The male has a green forehead and a green back. It has a rust-colored (rufous) tail, rump, and flanks.

Males have a shiny throat patch that females and immature Allen’s Hummingbirds do not. Females have rust color only on the tail feathers, which have white tips.

It’s not hard to recognize Allen’s Hummingbirds. The males perform a frantic mating display in which they fly about 25 feet (8 meters) back and forth in a path like a pendulum.

Occasionally they will soar to about 100 feet (30 meters), and dive in front of the female bird they are trying to impress.

If a male Allen’s Hummingbird does not find love in one backyard, it will try to find a mate in up to 10 other locations nearby.

It will chase away other male suitors from territory it considers its own.

Once a couple has mated, the female has to raise the chicks on her own, but the male will guard the territory around the nest to keep the female and nestlings safe.

There are two kinds of Allen’s Hummingbirds. There is a subspecies known as Selasphorus sasin sasin that migrates to a forest in Mexico in early December and comes back to California in early January.

And there is a subspecies known as Selasphorus sasin sedentarius that doesn’t bother to fly south for a few weeks if it can find a backyard feeder in its summer home.

Either way, Allen’s Hummingbirds will be in your backyard for up to 11 months a year, and often longer.

Non-migrating females may lay eggs up to four times a year.

Anna’s Hummingbird

The best known of the North American hummingbirds that live in the same place year-round is Anna’s Hummingbird.

Anna’s Hummingbird

If you are a backyard birdwatcher, and you live anywhere in southern California, coastal Oregon, Washington state, or southwestern British Columbia, chances are that you have caught a few performances of Anna’s hummingbirds.

For their size, Anna’s Hummingbirds are the fastest moving of all animals. A male Anna’s Hummingbird can travel 385 times the length of its body in a single second. That translates to 60 miles per hour, or a little under 100 kilometers per hour.

If a cheetah could move that fast, it would be moving at 1286 miles per hour, or about 2070 kilometers per hour, about twice the speed of sound.

The male Anna’s hummingbird not only can dive at incredible speed to woo a female with its strength, but it can also pull up at the last second just in time to avoid crashing into the ground.

The dive display of Anna’s hummingbird lasts about 12 seconds. It starts with the male hovering 6 to 12 feet (2 to 4 meters) in front of the bird or human it wishes to impress.

Then the bird flies up to 130 feet (40 meters) into the air and does its dive.

The air rushes through its feathers so it makes an explosive squeak about 18 inches (half a meter) in front of the bird or human it is trying to impress.

The hummingbird orients itself to the sun so its throat feathers glow purple during the dive.

Males of this species perform this act in five to fifteen backyards in a neighborhood for six to eight hours a day until they find a mate.

Sometimes an Anna’s Hummingbird will impale a wasp or bee on its bill during its drive and later starve to death.

When Anna’s Hummingbirds aren’t diving to impress, they feed on nectar and mate.

Anna’s hummingbirds are famous for mating with other species and creating offspring with unusual feather colors.

In the era before people hung hummingbird feeders in their backyards, Anna’s Hummingbirds were year-round residents of Baja California up to Los Angeles.

They are now found in the winter as far north as British Columbia and as far east as El Paso, Texas.

There is no deep, dark secret to keeping Anna’s Hummingbirds in your backyard all winter long: Just feed them.

It’s helpful to the hummingbirds if they have as many other sources of food as possible, especially young insects and nectar from winter-blooming flowers.

Other Hummingbirds That Don’t Always Migrate

Two other species of hummingbirds don’t always migrate, or at least don’t always wind up in their expected winter locations.

The intrepid Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is famous for flying 600 miles (1000 km) across the Gulf of Mexico non-stop, twice a year.

These beautiful birds flash green and red in the sunlight in backyard gardens across the eastern half of North America.

They range during the summer from Florida to Nova Scotia westward from Texas to Alberta in the summer.

Then they take the most direct path available to their winter homes in Central America, even if that involves flying over hundreds of miles of open water.

There are Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that take an overland route that passes through Texas and Mexico.

However, some Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds decide half a migration is enough. They find a nice backyard in Texas or Florida and decide to spend the winter there.

Rufous Hummingbirds are famous for making their summer homes in Alaska or the Yukon, down to Washington and Oregon, and then spending the winter in Mexico.

It’s not hard to identify a Rufous Hummingbird. The males are rusty orange on their backs and bellies.

The male has a shiny patch of red on his throat. Sexually immature male and female Rufous Hummingbirds have greenish feathers with rusty coloration on their flanks. Both sexes have tail feathers that come to a point.

Rufous Hummingbirds are remarkably territorial.

They fight other birds for flowers even if they are just passing through on their migration path.

They take on larger birds for nesting territory. They raid spider webs for additional insect protein.

Rufous Hummingbirds ordinarily fly to Mexico for the winter, but they sometimes stake out a reliable backyard feeder and try to spend the winter in coastal British Columbia, Washington, or Oregon.

As previously mentioned, there are even some hummingbirds that fly north for the winter.

The Buff-Bellied Hummingbird prefers to eat insects and sap in addition to flower nectar It raises its young in the summer in South Texas and northeastern Mexico, and then flies northeast to spend the winter in the Panhandle of Florida.

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