Birds & Birding

Why You’re Seeing Hummingbirds in Winter

December 15, 2021

hummingbird with red throat on branch
A male Anna’s hummingbird in Portland, Oregon. © Ryan Irwin/TNC Photo Contest 2021

While the first hummingbird sighting in the spring is always cause for celebration, the last report of autumn—or even winter—can be equally exciting, especially in the eastern United States.

It’s a myth that leaving your feeders up will prevent birds from migrating. Instead, many experts recommend maintaining hummingbird feeders for at least 2 weeks after you’ve seen the last one in your yard.

Other people prefer to keep feeders going well into winter, and for good reason. Any late stragglers could very well be unexpected species.

Eastern Exodus

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the species that regularly breeds from the Great Plains to the Atlantic. They pretty much flee the U.S. well before winter settles in. The earliest of migrants start pushing south by late July. Peak fall migration occurs in September.

In the springtime, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been documented crossing the Gulf of Mexico on an 18 to 24-hour nonstop journey. For fall migration, Sheri Williamson, author of A Field Guide to the Hummingbirds of North America highlights that the birds seem to be going around the Gulf.

hummingbird with red throat flying against green background
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Monongahela National Forest area near Dry Fork, West Virginia. © Kent Mason / TNC

The Yucatan Peninsula works like a funnel for northbound birds, but that’s not the case for hummingbirds headed south from their breeding range. The eBird animation she shares provides a stunning visual of this fall movement wrapping west through Texas and into Mexico. Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter from southern Mexico to Costa Rica.

Increasingly, hummingbirds are being documented in the U.S. throughout the winter months. It is thought that ornamental plantings might be aiding winter hummingbird survival along the Gulf Coast states and up the Atlantic seaboard.

Since nearly all the ruby-throated hummingbirds have cleared out of the east by October 15, birds encountered in winter could be any number of species.

small reddish hummingbird on a branch facing camera
A rufous hummingbird. © Laura Erickson / Flickr (used with permission)

Hearty Northerners

Rufous hummingbirds are the only species that regularly breed in Alaska. They are often considered the hardiest of the hummers.

Rufous generally migrate to the west of the Rocky Mountains, but in winter they are the most widespread drifters to the east. Rufous hummingbirds have been documented in all 50 states.

Renowned birder, author, and radio host Laura Erickson of Duluth, Minnesota, has struck winter rufous gold twice now. From November 16 – December 3, 2004, Erickson’s yard was frequently visited by a rufous hummingbird. Another of the western wanderers arrived in her yard this winter.

On her blog, Laura says, “People keep telling me to bring in my feeders to hasten her on her way. That could certainly force her hand, or wing, but I’m trusting that she knows how autumn unfolds into winter and understands what her migratory options are better than we do.”

small reddish hummingbird on a branch facing right of camera
A rufous hummingbird. © Laura Erickson / Flickr (used with permission)

This rufous hummer lingered for weeks in her neighborhood. “Several times since my hummingbird arrived, I’ve asked her how she makes these minute-by-minute and day-by-day decisions about where to be and what to eat, but so far she’s not talking,” Erickson continued on another post.

Erickson and her neighbors were diligent about keeping hummingbird feeders full and thawed. Laura even invested in a heated hummingbird feeder. After a relatively warm day spent feeding feverishly, the little rufous was last spotted at 3:48 p.m. on December 4.

Although this individual wasn’t banded, other winter hummingbirds have been marked and some of them return year after year, so Laura has confidence this bird likely survived. Some hummingbird species, including rufous have the ability to enter a short hibernation-like state called torpor. This helps them survive long winter nights without food.

Although rufous hummingbirds are the most frequent winter stragglers, they aren’t the only surprise visitors.

orange and green hummingbird perched on branch
A male Allen’s hummingbird. © Becky Matsubara

The Drifters

Infrequent but regular occurrences, a number of other hummingbirds show up far outside their expected ranges no matter the season. These rarities cause quite a stir in the birding community.

In many instances, the birds become highly sought after, but it is always essential to respect both the birds as well as the human hosts and neighbors. Highlights for the fall and winter of 2021 are numerous.

The west coast rufous doppelgänger, Allen’s hummingbird shows up regularly in the east. In December 2021 one was banded in Cincinnati, Ohio.

hummingbird flying upright with narrow purple band on throat
A black-chinned hummingbird. © Wendy Miller / Flickr

Black-chinned hummingbirds breed from southern British Columbia to central Texas. This species is becoming fairly regular along the Gulf of Mexico in winter. Farther inland, a December bird lingered near Athens, Georgia.

Broad-tailed hummingbirds look like ruby-throated, but certified bird banders can take measurements to separate the two species out. The Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, South Carolina, bands hummingbird throughout the east. They documented the first broad-tailed for the Palmetto State in September 2021.

Earlier in the fall of 2021, a Mexican violetear showed up in Illinois and then apparently moved on to Vermont. Greg Neise provided a detailed comparison on the American Birding Association’s Rare Bird Alert page.

More expected is the drifting of a few buff-bellied hummingbirds from their south Texas breeding range north along the Gulf. In winter a few individuals make it to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. During the winter of 2020/2021, one was documented in Virginia.

green and red hummingbird hovering near a feeder
A buff-bellied hummingbird at a feeder. © Russ Wigh / Flickr

Pacific & Southwest Residents

While most of the country is shocked by any winter hummingbird, for west coast and southwestern folks, a few species can be expected anytime.

The Pacific states are home to Anna’s hummingbirds all year. In the winter, this portly pink-headed sprite can push north into Canada or east to New Mexico. They are prone to drifting. In the fall of 2021, Kentucky recorded the first Anna’s for that location.

Arizona is the undisputed hummingbird capital of the United States. At least 13 species can regularly be found there at some point during the year. Many overwinter in the state, but peak diversity occurs during the late summer monsoon season.

hummingbird with raspberry-red throat
A male Anna’s hummingbird. © Bryce Bradford / Flickr

Cold season hummingbird species can include broad-billed and Costa’s or rare visitors like blue-throated and Rivoli’s. Outside of Tucson, nesting can start as early as February, so breeding and winter overlap here. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve is at an ecological crossroads, and this area can be productive for hummingbird watching.

Migration isn’t as simple as birds flying south for the winter. Hummingbirds as a group display several curious patterns for these annual journeys. Thanks in part to an extensive network of hummingbird feeding stations, these are some of the most documented natural phenomena.

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8 comments

  1. I’ve had hummingbird feeders out all summer (NYS) for several years – added Orioles to the customers at the feeders. But this year found a baby WaxWing under a plant on the ground in August – brought her in & fed her by syringe for a couple weeks – found 2 more babies in the same area that appeared to be younger & naked (both dead) then little later found a nest on the ground. I had no idea there were waxwings around at all, but I have to assume they might have been eating at the hummers feeders too. The baby is now pretty much an adult, I guess – four months old.

  2. what a AWESOME surprise to see NATURE AT ITS BEST and to know that their are still decent people in this world that care about the other creatures on this planet

  3. I live in southern coastal California, about an hour south of Santa Barbara. We have a hummingbird feeder hanging in front of a camellia bush that is the well-guarded “domain” of a resident Allen’s hummer, who we see daily and who chases away most other hummers…unless they’re extremely quick sippers!! We’ve dubbed him “Rusty” for his coloring, and so enjoy his daily antics, swooping, and darting with lively vocalizing!
    Love this blog post – beautiful photos too.

  4. Um…just for the record, Rufous Hummingbirds are hardy. Oatmeal and pirates are hearty. ; )

    In 2008, Missouri’s first Allen’s Hummingbird, an immature male, appeared at my feeder on Thanksgiving Day. Many individuals of this species are nearly impossible to tell apart from Rufous visually, but I’m a licensed hummer bander, and feather measurements were conclusive. Since then, I was fortunate to ID and band the state’s first Black-chinned and Broad-tailed as well. These birds obviously don’t read field guides, and decide for themselves where they “should” be.

  5. I’m in north central Missouri and still have one hummingbird. It looks like a female ruby throat but I can’t be sure. I keep a feeder out and switch feeders several times a day when it is very cold. I didn’t know there were feeders with warmers and will check this out.

  6. Hello everyone
    I am from Pakistan,and at home I have manage a pot feeders for birds it has 5 slots.I filled it every morning with seed ,grains.Then a lot of sparrow come to eat it .I feed almost 100 of sparrow daily….Lovely to see them fighting with each on food

  7. I was dumbfounded, a hummingbird was catching snowflakes in its wings then sitting on a tiny branch and preened its feathers. I thought I was hallucinating. I dug out my old ornithology text, and sure enough there in black and white print, hummers migrate away from cold weather. But there it was. Preening. Hmm..Since that sighting I have become more diligent in maintaining a year round feeder and doing more study into hummers that are year round. Last summer I saw, but sadly couldn’t document, a Rufous hummer flying its mating dance in my garden. I watched again the same midair dance… I live what used to be thought of as too far south for Rufous hummers to breed, they were considered”casual visitors” to my area on their migration North Then I saw a female nesting in a lilac bush, quite possibly a Rufous, but I didn’t want to intrude on her nursery for specific identification. Now I document what I see and will watch for them at the feeder. I guess they never read my ornithology text….