Feeding Birds in the Winter

Hummingbird feeders must be thawed in freezing weather (photo Bob Bowers)

Hummingbird feeders must be thawed in freezing weather (photo Bob Bowers)

Just a few years ago it was thought that putting hummingbird feeders out in the winter would encourage birds to hang around past the time they might normally migrate south.  This concern has been proven false for quite some time now, but unfortunately some folks still believe feeders should be taken down in the winter.  Here in SaddleBrooke, not only do some of our hummingbirds leave late for Mexico or arrive abnormally early in the spring, two of our species spend every winter here, often joined by a third.  Our Costa’s, with his purple gorget, is a year-round resident, and Anna’s Hummingbirds (the male’s gorget is ruby red) actually migrate into southeastern Arizona from late summer through early spring, nesting here during some of our coldest weather.  The third hummingbird that is seen here occasionally in the winter, and has been documented year-round in some parts of Tucson, is the brilliant Broad-billed Hummingbird.

 With as many as three species of hummingbirds in SaddleBrooke during the winter, we certainly need to keep at least a few hummingbird feeders cleaned and filled regularly.  Even in some of the coldest winter states, such as Wisconsin, late or lost migrant hummingbirds have been documented in the middle of winter.  It’s doubly important to keep hummingbird feeders up throughout the year in SaddleBrooke.  Not only do we have a year-round hummingbird population, but sometimes winter in the Sonoran Desert can take a major turn for the worst, as it did last February.  On February 3rd this year, my outdoor thermometer dropped to 17 degrees by sunrise, and the next day’s low wasn’t much better, at 19 degrees.  Temperatures gradually returned to normal during the month, but on the morning of February 27th, we awoke to a major snowfall.  When temperatures drop well below freezing or if our plants and feeders are buried under an atypical snowfall, all of our birds suffer, especially hummingbirds.

 Although hummingbirds rely on insects and spiders for protein, up to 90% of their diet consists of flower nectar or the artificial equivalent, sugar water.  Considering that these lightweight wonders (our Costa’s Hummingbirds weigh about two and one-half grams, the same as a penny) routinely beat their wings 70 times per second, it’s little wonder that they thrive on high energy sugar fuel.  When freezing weather hits or snow covers flowers and feeders, hummingbirds are particularly vulnerable.  Without continual access to sugar water or nectar, hummingbirds are at high risk.  They can put themselves into a dormant, low metabolic state during freezing nights, slowly absorbing sugar stored in their crop, but if replacement sugar is not available in the morning, these birds are likely to die.  Consequently, we should all keep at least one feeder up year-round.  If an overnight freeze is predicted, bring your feeders in after dark and replace them at first light.  If daytime temperatures persist below freezing, keep a close eye on your feeders, and thaw them out if ice crystals form.  Feeders without metal parts are especially useful, since they can be thawed quickly in a microwave.

 Although hummingbirds are our most vulnerable birds, severe weather negatively impacts all of them.  Sunflower and thistle feeders should be kept clean and full throughout the winter, as well, and winter is also a great time to hang suet feeders.  Suet cages are inexpensive, and suet cakes are available at places like Walmart for less than two dollars.  Suet provides high calory fat that birds need during cold weather, and nuts, berries and even bugs impregnated into the cakes add protein and nutrients, as well.  Suet will also draw birds that may ignore seed feeders, including Cactus Wrens and Gila Woodpeckers.

 January is also a good time to consider attending one or more of the upcoming bird festivals scheduled for the new year.  Wings Over Wilcox is one of the better-known festivals, running from January 11-15, and featuring workshops and field trips, highlighting the presence of thousands of Sandhill Cranes in the nearby wetlands.  For those needing an excuse to visit San Diego, the local Audubon Society there hosts a birding festival in March, and the bird-rich Verde Valley’s Birding and Nature Festival will be April 26-29.  Two festivals take place during the height of migration, Southwest Wings in Sierra Vista August 1-4, and the second annual Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival August 15-19.  Let me know if you would like contact  or other information for any of these.

 (This article originally appeared in the January, 2012 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

 

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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