Hummingbirds get little relief from hunger, thanks to the fastest metabolism of any vertebrate animal. Native plant nectar is usually their best food source, but since hummingbirds can starve after just a few hours without food, humans often lend a hand.
Hummingbird feeders tend to be a common sight during warmer months, but you may notice them dwindle a bit in winter. Many hummingbird species are migratory, and people often take down feeders in winter because they believe all the hummingbirds have left, or because they mistakenly worry their feeder might encourage birds to linger instead of migrating.
Some hummingbirds are natural homebodies, though, including a few that live year-round in relatively cool climates. And even if they do migrate, hunger looms throughout their journey. With different species migrating to and from various habitats, you could live on a migration route without knowing it, especially since some routes have seemed to shift in recent years. Aside from the main migration, that may include stragglers and early birds who show up at unusual times.
Here are a few ways to help out hummingbirds during winter, whether they're locals or just passing through:
Leave hummingbird feeders out.
Contrary to a common misconception, a feeder will not delay or discourage hummingbirds from migrating, even if it's left out all winter. Migratory species are genetically programmed to head for warmer climates in the fall, according to the National Audubon Society, and our hummingbird feeders don't influence that calculation.
"It's not a lack of nectar source or colder weather that makes them leave — they know it's time based on changes in the length of the day and the angle of the sun," the nonprofit group explains in a FAQ about feeding hummingbirds.
Your feeder may not get many visitors if you live in a colder climate, but if there are any stragglers or early arrivals in your area, it could make a big difference for them. And in places with milder winters, hummingbird feeders can be an important resource as large numbers of birds travel through or settle down. In Georgia, for example, the Department of Natural Resources encourages people across the state to leave out at least one hummingbird feeder during winter to accommodate western migrants.
Don't let your feeders freeze.
Experts recommend filling hummingbird feeders with a simple sugar-water solution — four parts water to one part sugar — without any dyes, honey or other additives. That food won't be very useful to hummingbirds if it's frozen, though, so a little extra maintenance might be necessary when temperatures dip below freezing.
One factor to consider is placement, since a feeder might freeze more easily if it's exposed to wind. Try protecting it with a windbreak, such as a tree, a shed or the side of your house. Near a window is a popular location, since it offers views of visiting birds and can warm up the feeder with heat from indoors, especially if you have a suction-cup feeder that attaches to the window.
Some people set up feeders near outdoor light fixtures for extra warmth, or even add a new heat source, ranging from heat lamps to Christmas lights. Others wrap theirs with insulating materials like fabric or socks full of rice. A covered porch or eave may prevent snow and ice from accumulating on a feeder, but it could also limit warmth from sun exposure.
Another option is to maintain two or more feeders, always keeping at least one indoors so it won't freeze, and periodically rotating them. Or, if freezing is mainly just a risk after dark, you could bring your feeders inside at night and put them back out in the morning. Hummingbirds tend to start the day early and hungry, though, so don't dawdle if you use that strategy.
Keep them clean, too.
Hygiene is important for hummingbird feeders at any time of year. Remember to replace the sugar-water solution at regular intervals, even if it's still full. This can help prevent bacteria and fungi from colonizing your feeder, which may not directly make hummingbirds sick, according to a 2019 study, but are still worth discouraging. Regularly cleaning and refilling your feeder is also a chance to make sure the feeding ports aren't clogged.
Provide natural food and shelter.
Aside from setting up artificial feeders, people can make life easier for hummingbirds throughout the year with a few landscaping tweaks to create more pockets of good hummingbird habitat.
Native flowering plants could make your garden a valuable resource for hummingbirds, especially if you can provide a range of early and late bloom cycles. Check which hummingbird species inhabit your area (and when), and which of their preferred plants you might want to try growing. It may also help to practice general bird-friendly landscaping, such as using native plants, creating "habitat layers" and offering a mix of variables like sun and shade or vegetation and open space. Providing water and shelter from the elements can help, too, as can avoiding pesticides.