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Hummingbirds in Winter

Hummingbird feeding for most North Americans is purely a summertime activity. The first hummingbirds generally arrive in the north just as the flowers begin to bloom in late spring. And these energetic little gems generally disappear long before the last of the leaves drop, seeking warmer climates with year-round nectar supplies. But many FeederWatchers, particularly in the southeast, may want to resist the urge to pack away their nectar feeders when the pumpkins arrive.

From the Pacific coast through Arizona, along the Gulf coast, and into the southeast, hummingbirds are being reported by FeederWatchers year-round. Anna’s Hummingbirds are resident in much of the west from Baja California to southern coastal British Columbia, so sightings of this species are common at feeders in the winter. However, many other western hummingbirds seen in winter are species that should be elsewhere at that time of year, including Allen’s, Rufous, and even a few Black-chinned hummingbirds. These species nest in the west, but generally winter in Mexico and points south.

The Allen’s, Rufous, and Black-chinned hummingbirds seen in the winter are individuals that lingered behind their migrating brethren, playing the odds that a more sedentary lifestyle will not lead to a shorter lifespan.

Hummingbird sightings in December, January, and February are generally not expected in the rest of the U.S., but FeederWatch data suggest that hummingbird fans need not move to Arizona.  Hummingbirds are consistently reported by FeederWatchers in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species familiar to most bird watchers east of Texas, and sightings in the winter are rare outside of extreme southern Florida.  Ruby-throats normally winter from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. Are these winter hummingbirds in the southeast lingering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds?

Chances are the hummingbirds seen in Gulf-coast states and the southeast in the winter are actually Rufous Hummingbirds. While this species typically winters in Mexico, vagrants are increasingly being reported throughout the southeast in winter. Hummingbird banders working in the region capture dozens of individuals each winter.

Banders help confirm the species identification, as hummingbirds can be difficult to distinguish by sight in the winter. Last winter alone, staff at the Hilton Pond Center in York, South Carolina recorded Rufous, Black-chinned, and Calliope hummingbirds in the Carolinas. FeederWatchers in Pine Lake, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio even had licensed banders visit their yards to tag the Rufous Hummingbirds visiting their feeders.

Are hummingbirds wintering in the southeast more frequently than in the past? The answer to that question remains uncertain. It is possible that more people are now keeping an eye out for hummingbirds in winter and maintaining their hummingbird feeders year-round, so the likelihood of seeing and reporting a hummingbird in winter has increased. Regardless, if you live in the south and see a hummingbird buzzing in the wintertime, be sure to take a close look—it may not be the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that you commonly see in the warmer months.