Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Winter Hummingbirds


Please cite this Page as:
Rosenberg, K.V., 1995.  Winter Hummingbirds. Birdscope, Volume 9, Number 1.

If you FeederWatch in the Northeast, you may wonder why we list so many hummingbirds on the Project FeederWatch Data Form. After all, these birds are summer residents in your yard, and FeederWatch is a winter survey.

True, only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird normally occurs in the eastern half of North America—and in winter this bird migrates to Mexico and Central America. But in other parts of the continent, Project FeederWatch really does monitor hummingbirds.

The hummers that FeederWatchers record fall into two categories. One is birds that arrive shortly before the end of the FeederWatch season in April. Northward-migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach the southeastern United States in March, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds arrive in southwestern states as early as late February. On the southern Pacific Coast, migrating hummingbirds arrive even earlier: Allen’s Hummingbirds in late January and Rufous Hummingbirds about a month later. Costa’s Hummingbirds also visit feeders in desert regions of Arizona and Southern California when the calendar still reads "winter." Project FeederWatch data reflect these arrival dates. For example, about 20 percent of southeastern FeederWatchers record returning ruby-throats, and up to 30 percent of West Coast FeederWatchers count Rufous Hummingbirds.

The second category consists of hummingbirds that overwinter in North America. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the U.S. states along the Mexican border, feeding hummingbirds may be a year-round activity.

In California and southern Arizona, 60 to 80 percent of FeederWatchers record Anna’s Hummingbird, the only hummer that doesn’t migrate south in winter. Anna’s Hummingbird has been expanding its range northward and eastward from California and Arizona in recent decades—it has even reached Alaska and Florida.

The other regions where hummingbirds commonly overwinter are south Florida and south Texas. These are within the subtropical winter range of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Although southeastern Arizona is famous for its remarkable diversity of hummingbirds, few species actually spend the winter there.

Our picture of hummingbirds’ winter distribution has recently changed thanks to a surge of interest in winter hummingbird feeding along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. Backyard birders there were surprised to discover that their feeders attracted not the expected Ruby-throats, but a variety of western species—species that ornithologists thought wintered farther south, in Mexico.

In the New Orleans area, for example, Rufous Hummingbirds are the most common wintering species, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are unexpectedly numerous. Even more surprising has been the appearance of Buff-bellied Hummingbirds; past evidence suggested that, in winter, their only U.S. haunt was extreme southern Texas. Louisiana feeders have also enjoyed regular visits by other western species such as Allen’s, Broad-tailed, and Calliope Hummingbirds, and occasional visits by nearly every North American hummingbird species, including Anna’s, Broad-billed, and Blue-throated. One Christmas Bird Count at Baton Rouge recorded a staggering seven species of hummingbirds, making this region the winter hummingbird capital of the United States.

Gulf Coast birders have found that wintering hummers often arrive after cold fronts pass through in November. The birds are initially attracted to yards with late-blooming native plants, such as pineapple sage and red salvia. Buff-bellied Hummingbirds are particularly fond of the red-flowering Turk’s cap. Only after occasional winter frosts kill the remaining blooms will the hummingbirds take up residence at sugar-water feeders. These birds are remarkably hardy and will survive as long as the water in the feeders doesn’t freeze completely.

Much of what we know about wintering hummingbirds in Louisiana comes from the efforts of one local birder, Nancy Newfield, who has special permits to band the tiny hummers. Besides helping to document rare species with measurements and photos, Newfield showed that these wayward waifs are not lost at all—many banded individuals return to the same backyard year after year.