Hummingbirds are some of the most sought after and desirable backyard birds, eagerly anticipated when they arrive in spring, brightening the summer months with their frequent visits, and missed in fall when they leave on their migrations. But where do hummingbirds go in winter?
Why Hummingbirds Leave in Winter
Hummingbirds need abundant nectar and insects for adequate food, but when the temperatures drop and the days are cold and frozen, there are no food sources available for these flying jewels. Their tiny bodies cannot cope with sustained cold, so they instinctively migrate to warmer areas where flowers and insects can be found through the winter months. Even if dedicated birders provide supplemental feeders, hummingbirds still get the majority of their meals from natural food sources and will seek out areas where food is abundant, which means these birds must leave in the winter.
So, Where Do They Go?
Many hummingbirds travel south to find suitable food and shelter for the winter, but they don’t always travel too far. Most hummingbirds move just far enough south to survive the season. This ensures they are close enough to their breeding grounds that they can quickly return in the spring, staking out the best new territories and attracting mates right away. For some hummingbirds, such as the popular ruby-throated hummingbird, this may mean only going as far as southern Florida and the Florida Keys for the winter, as well as into southern Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, and further south to western Panama. Other hummingbirds venture into central and western Mexico, throughout Central America, or even along the Gulf Coast from Texas through the Florida panhandle.
But, Not All Hummingbirds Leave in Winter!
In some areas, where winter weather is milder and food and shelter can be found year-round, hummingbirds will stay around even during the coldest months. This includes along the Pacific Coast as far north as southern British Columbia and the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Hummingbirds also spend winters in southwestern and central Arizona, southern Florida, and along the Texas coast. In all these areas, mild winters still allow for adequate insects and flowering plants to provide food for hungry hummers. Occasionally, a stray hummingbird may spend colder months in an unexpected area, but these incidents are rare and the birds either do not stay through the entire winter or else their survival is unlikely as the weather continues to worsen.
Helping Overwintering Hummingbirds
Whether birders live in an area where hummingbirds naturally stay year-round or they have an unexpected hummingbird guest as temperatures drop, there are certain steps to take to help hummingbirds through cold snaps.
- Sweeten nectar slightly to provide stronger energy and more calories to help hummingbirds combat the cold. A slight increase is acceptable, but do not sweeten nectar so much that it will clog feeding ports.
- Avoid pruning bushes in late fall. Hummingbirds will roost in dense thickets overnight, and thicker bushes will provide better protection from biting winds, frozen rain, and snow flurries. Instead, wait to prune until late winter or early spring.
- Plant nectar-rich flowers that have long blooming seasons and will continue to bloom late into fall. These flowers will still be good food sources for hummingbirds even as temperatures begin to drop, and the birds will recognize natural foods more easily.
- Take steps to keep hummingbird feeders from freezing, such as bringing the feeders inside overnight, using small lights to keep them heated, or otherwise insulating nectar reservoirs so the liquid nectar can always flow easily.
- Leave spiderwebs intact through the fall so hummingbirds can pluck small gnats, flies, and other insects from the webs for an easy meal. Leftover webs will also be ideal nesting material for hummingbirds in early spring.
- Avoid using any insecticide or pesticides that would eliminate the bugs hummingbirds eat. Instead, the birds will provide natural, ongoing pest control to manage insect populations without the need for chemicals.
- Consider supporting responsible agricultural practices for coffee, chocolate, and other produce grown in tropical areas where hummingbirds spend the winter. This will ensure there are safe, healthy habitats available for hummingbirds no matter where they go in winter.
By understanding what hummingbirds need and where they go in the winter to meet their survival needs, birders can better provide safe spaces for winter hummingbirds, not just in their backyard, but in every region critical for hummingbirds in winter.