What Do Hummingbirds Eat in the Winter?
While it’s rare to see one during cold weather in the northeast, you may have noticed an early ruby-throated visitor or late season straggler that left you wondering: what do hummingbirds eat in the winter?
Hummingbirds continue to drink flower nectar and eat insects even in winter. That’s why nearly all of them head south for the winter, into the southern U.S., the Caribbean, Central America, and even South America.
The exception to that is a few species that live in the western U.S. One species, the Anna’s hummingbird, can live in Washington state year-round. Some other varieties are also starting to live further north throughout winter.
When it’s cold, hummingbirds need a lot more energy to survive. They have a fast metabolism to begin with, and the cold makes it even harder for them to maintain their body temperature. That’s why it’s important to leave your feeders up until after the last hummingbirds have migrated. (For more on this, check out when to stop feeding hummingbirds.)
Torpor is a deep-sleep state that hummingbirds can go into at night to preserve energy. They can use up to 50 times less energy during torpor than they would while awake. Even so, they’re still expending 10% of their body weight on any given chilly night, so it’s not a perfect fix.
One reason western hummingbirds have been staying in cooler weather more frequently is the abundance of feeders. More and more people are feeding hummingbirds through the winter, and therefore the heartiest hummingbird varieties have no need to travel south.
Western birders keep their sugar water from freezing in a variety of ways. Some rotate feeders throughout the day, use lights to keep the feeder warm, attach hot pads, and more.
Feeding hummingbirds in these conditions is a true commitment, though. The hummingbirds come to rely on the supply, especially during extreme cold. They may have trouble if feeders are not kept thawed, filled, and cleaned.
Some winters are warmer these days, and hummingbirds have taken note. More can be found further north from where they used to stay, since rising temperatures mean more insects and blooming flowers. During a mild winter, you may see ruby-throated hummingbirds living in the deep south instead of their usual tropical winter getaways.
Thankfully, that’s not yet a possibility here. After all, it would be a bad time indeed if winters were warm enough in the northeast to host ruby-throated hummingbirds year-round! However, we may notice them coming up sooner in spring than in years past as time goes on.
Hummingbirds in Winter
Now that you know what hummingbirds eat in the winter, you probably understand why we don’t see them for months at a time! Their high metabolisms and warm-weather food needs keep them tied to the south for the winter season.
And who can blame them? Plenty of us like to head south when winter weather sets in, too.
Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about these fascinating creatures, here’s why hummingbirds fight.
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