Not that long 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, but unfortunately some folks still think a feeder will cause a bird to forget to migrate, which can have serious consequences, especially in southern states like Arizona where hummingbirds are resident year round. Here in SaddleBrooke, some of our migrating hummingbirds leave late for Mexico or arrive abnormally early in the spring, and three of our species spend every winter here: our Costa’s, the male with a purple gorget, Anna’s Hummingbirds (the male’s gorget is ruby red) and the brilliantly blue-green iridescent Broad-billed Hummingbird. These birds don’t wait for spring to nest, and sugar water feeders can make a life or death difference when temperatures plunge.
Even in some of the coldest winter states, such as Wisconsin, late or lost migrant hummingbirds have been documented in the middle of winter, but with three year-round species of hummingbirds in SaddleBrooke, we clearly need to keep our hummingbird feeders cleaned and filled regularly. Winter in the Sonoran Desert can sometimes be brutal, as it was in February of 2011, when our thermometer dropped to 17 degrees. When temperatures drop below freezing or if our plants and feeders are buried under an atypical snowfall, all our birds are at risk.
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 they thrive on high energy sugar fuel. When freezing weather hits or snow covers flowers and feeders, hummingbirds are particularly vulnerable. They 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 might die. 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 most vulnerable, severe weather impacts all birds. Sunflower and thistle feeders should be kept clean and full throughout the winter, as well, and winter is a great time to hang suet, which provides high calorie fat. Suet cages are inexpensive, and suet cakes are cheap as well. If you want to provide a special treat, make your own suet. Email us for an easy suet recipe, and watch your birds wolf it down in a fraction of the time they spend on commercial cakes. We make suet with lard, bacon drippings and a wide variety of other ingredients including peanut butter, cornmeal, flour, oatmeal, seeds, berries, cereal and nuts. This is a great way to dispose of nuts, cereal and other foodstuffs that have outlived their shelf life. Another ingredient that your birds will thank you for is freeze-dried mealworms, which can be purchased at Tractor Supply or online at Amazon. As much as birds appreciate mealworms, you might find it a little difficult to stir them into a simmering suet mixture on your stove. At the very least you will probably want to dedicate the pot exclusively to suet.
This article was first published in the January, 2019 issue of Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson