Anna’s Hummingbird / Mitch Walters / Audubon Photography Awards

Feeding Hummingbirds in the Winter

One species of hummingbird regularly over winters in Washington State: Anna’s Hummingbird

At the Seattle Audubon Nature Shop we receive many calls a day about feeding hummingbirds in winter. Anna’s Hummingbird has expanded its range in recent decades, and is present year-round in the Seattle area. If you have been feeding the hummingbirds and they have become accustomed to finding food in your yard, there are steps you can take to keep nectar available even during cold snaps. 

1. Do NOT adjust the mix! Keep the mix at 1:4 ratio sugar to water.

Nectar concentrations vary greatly among a variety of plants hummingbirds visit, but they are typically low in sugar. Recipes with a higher concentration of sugar do not necessarily benefit hummingbirds because it cannot travel up the grooves of their tongue easily and may also damage kidneys and liver. Though increasing the sugar may help to prevent freezing, our experts recommend staying consistent with a 1:4 mix. White sugar and water only! No honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc. Pure sucrose is what they need to survive. We do NOT recommend red dye. A simple recipe of 1 part sugar and 4 parts water, mixed in a pan, bring to a boil, and then remove from heat and cool. You may store extra in the fridge up to two weeks. Clean feeder once a week during cold weather more often during warmer weather.

2. Have two feeders and rotate them.

The mix will begin to freeze around 29 degrees. Rotating the feeders throughout the day will keep the fluid moving and available to the birds. Hummingbirds do not feed at night so you can bring the feeders indoor however they start at dawn so get a feeder back out as early as possible. Anna’s can be very territorial, and may not share a feeder (especially multiple males), so having multiple feeders can help break up the fighting and competition for a single feeder.

3. Don’t enjoy setting your alarm for 5am?

String Christmas lights around the feeder, the ambient heat can be just enough to keep things thawed (depending on how cold it gets). Or hang a trouble light nearby the feeding station, or from the bottom of the feeder. This is the light commonly used by car mechanics, or garage enthusiasts. It has a little cage around it and a hook at the top. Depending on the watts, it can put out enough heat on those especially cold nights.

4. Duct tape a hand warmer to the feeder.

These hand warmers (or feet warmers) are pouches with chemicals in them that get activated once out of their packaging. They emit heat for approximately 7 hours. They are commonly available at hardware and sporting goods stores. We have them at The Nature Shop as well.

5. Finally, another method to try is plumber’s heat tape.

These flexible electric tapes are similar to a flat extension cord and can easily be wrapped around and taped to many types of feeders. Most heat tapes are equipped with a built-in thermostat in the cord. The wattage of these tapes is very low and does not draw a lot of energy. Try home supply stores and hardware stores for this product.

6. Don't stress too much about the welfare of the Hummingbirds.

Generally, our winters are mild and the cold snaps are usually not that long. Hummingbirds are capable of reducing their body temperature at night and conserving their energy. They roost in trees and shrubs and do not use nest boxes or bird houses. They need a lot of sucrose (nectar) during the day to keep them going especially in the cold. In addition to nectar for fuel, hummingbirds will consume any insects they encounter which help them meet their protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements. Insects can be found under bark and plants even during winter cold periods. Extended periods of cold are especially hard on these small birds designed to spend winters in warmer climates. Continuing to offer nectar is a way in which we can assist them.

Also consider a water source for the birds in general. Birds need water and when everything is frozen water can be hard to find. A pan of water that is refreshed with hot water periodically or has a heater or sprout pad under it can be a big help. A birdbath with a birdbath heater is great. The Nature Shop has these too.

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Ants and Wasps

Ants and wasps are certainly a problem for your hummingbird feeders.  They are very happy to partake in the sugary syrup and will bother the birds you actually want to visit.  Though you’ll likely have some competition here and there, it’s fairly simple to deter these unwanted insects.

To remove ant problems, you’ll simply need a moat to buffer between your feeder and whatever it hangs on.  Some feeders have moats built into them, so that ants climbing down the hanger will be met with water, which they can’t cross.  For feeders without this, you can create your own or buy a moat which the feeder hangs from.

Wasps, being winged, are slightly more difficult.  There are rubber tips that can be added to the insides of various feeders that allow hummingbird bills to pass through but stop unwanted insects from accessing the liquid.  Some feeders support small cages that go on the exterior holes, stopping access by the short tongued insects.

Alternatively, you could set up a wasp trap nearby which if baited correctly (there’s a variety of recipes from fermented fruit mixed with juice to store bought bait liquid) will attract the insects elsewhere.  Wasp straps can be made simply by punching a hold into a plastic bottle small enough for the wasps to crawl into but not allowing them to escape.  Having a feeder in a more shaded area could also help, as wasps, bees, and hornets prefer to be in the sun.  You should never use pesticides or an extra feeder “just for wasps.”  The former can be harmful to the birds and other insects. The latter will just encourage more wasps and probably strengthen the colony.

More information on the Anna’s Hummingbird:

General Description:
The Anna’s Hummingbird is a medium-sized hummingbird with a relatively short, straight bill and a long sloping forehead. Both males and females are bronze-green above, and gray below. Males are easy to distinguish from other hummingbirds as their entire heads and throats are bright iridescent red. Female have green heads, with a small amount of red on their throats. Females have black tails with white tips, while the males’ tails are solid blackish-gray.

Conservation Status:
Historically limited to western California, in recent years Anna’s Hummingbirds have dramatically expanded their range northward as far as British Columbia. This expansion has been attributed to hummingbird feeders and gardens with exotic flowers that provide the birds with a year-round food source. Climate change may also play a role. They are currently very common across much of their range, and because they adapt well to suburban areas, should continue to thrive in the future.

To get more information on the Anna’s Hummingbird click here.

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