READER REPORT: How to help hummingbirds survive this subfreezing weather

(December 2021 hummingbird photo by Rick R)

David emailed today to suggest a PSA about helping hummingbirds get through this subfreezing weather – “tending to their feeders diligently over the next two days will literally mean life or death for many of them.” He offered this advice:

I have four feeders. One has a small homemade heater which protects the nectar from freezing, which is nice, but really not necessary in order to help them out.

They do not feed at night, so by simply bringing your feeders in after dark, then setting them out at daybreak again does wonders. The feeders will rise to indoor room temperature overnight then stay unfrozen for sometime when they are put out at daybreak.

Speaking of daybreak, this feeding is extremely important as this is when they come out of torpor. Torpor is the short state of hibernation they go into at dark in order to slow their respiration, conserve energy, and make it through the cold night. As soon as they wake up at the first rays of light, they are very hungry and are looking for an energy boost quickly so they can warm up.

The ratio of sugar to water in their nectar is a source of energy and the regular ratio is four parts water to one part sugar. An important note that I just recently learned: One goal of maintaining the nectar for them is simply keeping it unfrozen, but another consideration is that the temperature of the nectar itself lowers their overall body temperature. Rotating the feeder a few times during the day will help them out during these extraordinarily low temperatures, like a warm cocoa versus a iced latte.

My feeders contain no metal and are short enough to fit in my microwave. I blast them long enough to bring them up to a gentle warm temperature, barely warm to the touch, and hang them right back out again. If your feeder can’t be quickly microwaved, then making a huge pot of nectar is always an option too. It will set you back a little for the raw sugar, but a huge pot at room temperature kept on the stove can be used to refill your feeders periodically throughout the next couple of days. Just pour out the frozen nectar and pour
in the room temperature nectar for the swap out.

The lack of available food means there will be a great deal of fighting among the dominant males, so I spread my feeders around my yard, preferably out of line of sight between them. I have one on each of the four sides of my house for this reason. This allows for the weaker birds to swoop in occasionally and have a shot at getting a sip. Hand warmers can also be secured to the sides or bottoms of your feeders to maintain them for a few hours. This works well, but of course they are single use and can get expensive. You would also need to acquire them by this afternoon if you don’t have any on hand.

If we can all tend our feeders diligently for the next two days it will mean many more will be able to endure what may end up being record low temperatures.

Also, unfrozen bird feeders are a huge help to all of the local birds as it’s hard for them to rehydrate when all the water is solid.

Some other quick tips for helping birds in general are here.

28 Replies to "READER REPORT: How to help hummingbirds survive this subfreezing weather"

  • waikikigirl December 21, 2022 (3:48 pm)

    Here’s the set up we used last winter and are currently doing again, heat lamp next to feeder and it keeps the syrup thawed. And also like David suggests, bring feeders in at night and set back out around 7am.

    • waikikigirl December 22, 2022 (6:52 am)

      We also usually have 2 feeders out but when its cold like this we only put out one and keep the other filled and ready to go outside in case the headlamp can’t keep up with the cold air freezing the one thats outside. As for the syrup, I’ve read numerous articles and will stay with the tried and true 1:4 ratio.FYI…the 1 hummer in my picture in other comment, that’s Mr. Boss Man, he shoos off the others but sometimes they win because there’s too many of them!

  • MARK L UFKES December 21, 2022 (4:02 pm)

    Thank you for sharing this helpful information David.  You are wonderful.  

  • WS4life December 21, 2022 (4:02 pm)

    Thanks for the great tips and info, it’s a full-time job keeping those little hummingbirds fed during cold snaps like this.

  • Michael Waldo December 21, 2022 (4:18 pm)

    yes, I bring mine in every night. I have bubble wrap around the glass top reservoir for insulation. I also put a hand warmer around the reservoir. I have three birth baths/drinking saucers. I empty them at night and put warm water in them first thing in the morning – three times today. I counted 14 robins drinking. We must have the only unfrozen water around as I have never seen so many in our yard before. Several even stepped in as if they were warming their feet.

    • waikikigirl December 21, 2022 (5:32 pm)

      We also have a rock fountain that the water is still flowing up and out and the birds like yours Michael Waldo stick their feet in it and drink from it, yes you’d think it would be too cold! This is from the Summer…covered in algae. yuk! 

  • WS4life December 21, 2022 (4:27 pm)

    Thanks for the great tips and info, it’s very important to keep these little hummingbirds fed during a cold snap.

  • wsperson December 21, 2022 (4:31 pm)

    david, thank you for helping hummingbirds, that is so sweet

  • rob December 21, 2022 (5:33 pm)

    Very good info and I hope lots of folks are looking out for our tiny friends. I do want to point out one thing however- while they are not normally active and feeding at night, we have a camera on one of our feeders and they are routinely visiting that feeder an hour before sunup, so please bear that in mind when scheduling putting your feeders out. They may not all do this, but we do see several different birds using this feeder that early.In the above photo, the light you can see is the infrared lamp on the camera, and this capture is from around 6:30 am. They are excellent little timekeepers, showing up at the same time each morning +/- only two minutes. To keep them warm we are using inexpensive heat lamps with bulbs made for reptile enclosures that emit heat but no light. We found the bulbs on Amazon. We then cut some reflective bubble wrap insulation that you can find at Home Depot, and made a cylinder to keep the heat around the bottle of the feeder. The picture doesn’t show it, but the feeder is hanging from the heat lamp. 

  • rob December 21, 2022 (5:40 pm)

    We added another heat lamp yesterday and here is a photo of it. We hadn’t yet put the insulation on and the lamp hadn’t melted away all of the ice yet when this photo was taken. We drilled two holes in opposite sides of the dish, and ran a piece of wire through to hang the feeder from. Even without the insulation the lamp was able to melt away the ice and keep the feeder from freezing. 

  • Friend O'Dinghus December 21, 2022 (6:05 pm)

    Those look like great ideas Rob. Thank you for sharing them with us. Also, thank you for the tips about the pre-sunrise visitors. I will set mine out beginning at 6:30 instead of 7:00 accordingly. Cheers! Also, Waikiki girl, love your fountain!

  • Linda December 21, 2022 (7:48 pm)

    Please keep your ratio of sugar to water at 1:4 (one part sugar to 4 parts water) as recommended by the Seattle Audubon Society, midway down this link: higher concentration doesn’t help them and can harm them. And keep in mind, if you’re keeping the pan warm on the stove you are actually increasing the concentration of sugar as the heat will cause the water to evaporate. Best to just keep it at room temp so you know the concentration stayed 1:4.

  • Suzanne December 21, 2022 (8:26 pm)

    The ratio of water to  cane sugar in the nectar should be a constant 4 parts water to 1 part sugar, per Seattle Audubon —

    • “Do NOT adjust the mix! Keep the mix at 1:4 ratio sugar to water. 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. The excess sugar 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 of white sugar and water only. No honey, brown sugar, maple syrup or red dye is recommended. Pure sucrose is what they need to survive. A simple recipe of 1 part sugar and 4 parts water, mixed in a pan, brought to a boil, and then removed from heat and cooled is all that’s necessary for the birds.  You may store extra in the fridge up to two weeks. Clean feeders once a week during cold weather and more often during warmer weather.”
  • Ann December 21, 2022 (9:13 pm)

    Yes –  thanks for posting David.  2 NOTES on the comments: Most plastics are not stable in microwaves and leach into food / not safe for humans to eat from- therefore  imagine same for other life. Maybe OK, but f your feeder has plastic reservoirs, not sure microwaving them is the best idea for use by  tiny, sensitive  anatomies.As per Rob’s comment:  I also have video of hummingbirds feeding up to 2 hours after dark and and an hour or more before sunrise.  (Possibly from too-bright street lights?)  The problem with bringing feeders inside is that once the hummer comes out of torpor (wakes up) it needs to eat within about 15 minutes given their metabolism – especially in the cold when (we all) burn more calories. If you sleep in or forget to get the feeders out  when they show up – that could be very hard on the bird who is trying to conserve energy by coming directly to a known food source (your reliable feeder).  So if you bring them in – ensure getting them back out by about 6AM.  What we’re talking about here only applies for when temps reach freezing / subfreezing.In normal weather, the birds will be OK, as their diet in the wild consists of about 80% insects and only 20% nectar (feeders mimic nectar).  

  • Ann December 21, 2022 (9:17 pm)

    One thing that REALLY helps ALL birds and wildlife in freezing weather is unfreezing their water by by adding some hot water to bath a few times per day or whenever possible so they can get a drink. Or, by supplying moving water.  Super hard for animals to find it in an aberrant frozen landscape. Thanks to everyone who looks out for the birds and other wildlife in harsh weather. Appreciate you!

  • Patrick December 21, 2022 (10:35 pm)

    Very informative and well written. Thanks!!!!

  • Kersti Elisabeth Muul December 21, 2022 (11:07 pm)

    Absolutely do NOT change the ratio.If you find a bird in torpor bring it inside in a warm place in a box with a lid (and airholes)If it comes out of torpor it needs to eat immediately. If you have a feeder that can stand on its own put in the box for them.We lost hundreds of hummingbirds last winter during the extended stretch of sub freezing temps.The reports are already rolling in, in west seattle of hummingbirds on the ground…

    Please edit this report to remove t the bad information about ratios. In case people don’t read the ccomments

  • WSB December 22, 2022 (12:28 am)

    Edited (with David’s concurrence) to reflect the discussion above.

  • anonyme December 22, 2022 (6:35 am)

    Thank you for the reminder and the suggestions.  I just went out and cleaned and filled both hummer feeders, and changed out the water dishes as well.  Once it gets light I’ll go out and look for hummers (or other birds/critters) in torpor; it’s pretty dang cold out there.  For the last few days I’ve kept the water dishes thawed and full, and the birds (especially robins) were more attentive to the water than the food!  Of course, they’ve completely stripped three Mountain Ash of berries in as many days, so…

  • KM December 22, 2022 (8:02 am)

    I brought our hummingbird feeder in last night and put it back out this morning slightly after 7. Thrilled to see a hummingbird within 10 minutes drinking. Came back as I was typing, much to the excitement of my indoor cat! Thank you all for the conversation. I’m going to go and add some warm water to the bird bath and the area around it where the songbirds chow from our rain garden.

  • K8E December 22, 2022 (11:10 am)

    Here is a still shot of one of our many bird visitors today. Having a warm drink in the bird bath. Sat there for a good 10 minutes!

  • MujiP December 23, 2022 (9:25 pm)

    I love all of the great advice, thank you all. I have 3 hummingbird feeders and all have light heaters attached to them. I leave them on all night and day as soon as it starts getting into the 30s. I like to think it helps them warm up when it starts to become colder outside. I haven’t found any hummingbirds on the ground though.. I will have to keep an eye out.I also fill the bird bath water as soon as I wake in the morning with warm water. It seems to pull in all the birds in the area to my yard. 

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