Anna’s Hummingbird (photo by Kamriell Welty)

At the Seattle Audubon Nature Shop we receive many calls a day about feeding hummingbirds during winter. The Anna’s Hummingbird has expanded its range in recent decades, and is present year-round in the Seattle area, even in winter. If you have been feeding the hummingbirds and they have become accustomed to finding food in your yard, there are steps you can take to keep nectar available even during cold snaps.

Recommended Reading: To Feed or Not to Feed

Don’t Stress

Generally, our winters are mild and the cold snaps are usually not that long. Hummingbirds are capable of reducing their body temperature at night and conserving their energy. They roost in trees and shrubs and do not use nest boxes or bird houses. They need a lot of sucrose (nectar) during the day to keep them going especially in the cold. In addition to nectar for fuel, hummingbirds will consume any insects they encounter which help them meet their protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements. Insects can be found under bark and plants even during winter cold periods. 

Keep the mix at 1:4 ratio sugar to water

Keep your mixture the same in winter. Nectar concentrations vary greatly among a variety of plants hummingbirds visit, but they are typically low in sugar. Recipes with a higher concentration of sugar do not necessarily benefit hummingbirds because it cannot travel up the grooves of their tongue easily and may also damage kidneys and liver. Though increasing the sugar may help to prevent freezing, our experts recommend staying consistent with a 1:4 mix. White sugar and water only! No honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc. Pure sucrose is what they need to survive. We do NOT recommend red dye. A simple recipe of 1 part sugar and 4 parts water, mixed in a pan, bring to a boil, and then remove from heat and cool. You may store extra in the fridge up to two weeks. Clean the feeder once a week during cold weather and more often (2x a week or more) during warmer weather. Always discard unused nectar with each cleaning.

Rotate between two feeders.

The mix will begin to freeze around 29 degrees. Rotating the feeders throughout the day will keep the fluid moving and available to the birds. Hummingbirds do not feed at night so you can bring the feeders indoor however they start at dawn so get a feeder back out as early as possible. Anna’s can be very territorial, and may not share a feeder (especially multiple males), so having multiple feeders can help break up the fighting and competition for a single feeder.

Warm your feeder

There are a few simple solutions to keep your feeder warm and prevent freezing.

1. String incandescent Christmas lights around the feeder or hang a low-watt bulb below the feeder. The light needs to be just warm enough to keep the nectar from freezing. (Note: LED lights do not give off enough heat and will not work.)

2. Attach a hand warmer to your feeder. These hand warmers (or feet warmers) are pouches with chemicals in them that get activated once out of their packaging. They emit heat for approximately 7 hours. They are commonly available at hardware and sporting goods stores. 

3. Attach plumbers heat tape to your feeder. These flexible electric tapes are similar to a flat extension cord and can easily be wrapped around and taped to many types of feeders. Most heat tapes are equipped with a built-in thermostat in the cord. The wattage of these tapes is very low and does not draw a lot of energy. Try home supply stores and hardware stores for this product.

Offer fresh water in winter, and all year long

Also consider a water source for the birds in general. Birds need water and when everything is frozen water can be hard to find. A pan of water that is refreshed with hot water periodically or has a heater or sprout pad under it can be a big help. A birdbath with a birdbath heater is great. The Nature Shop has these, too.

Provide food and shelter with native plants

Add wildlife-friendly plants to your space. Whether you have a balcony, backyard, or garden in a public right-of way, you can attract and support hummingbirds and other birds through your plant choices and garden maintenance techniques.

Get started with Seattle Audubon’s Gardening for Life.