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Heated Feeders: Overwintering Hummingbirds in the Rogue Valley

The Anna's hummingbird is the only species that lives year-round here in the Rogue Valley. All others migrate south in the winter.

All hummingbirds are specialized nectar-eaters with long beaks and grooved tongues for probing flowers. When flowers are absent, sugar nectar supplies the energy they need and makes up 90% of the adult diet (insects make up the other 10%).

Because nectar sources are scarce in winter, you can help sustain our local hummingbird population by providing fresh nectar for them daily. Hummingbirds typically eat two to three times their own body weight in nectar and insects every day.

Because of the hummingbird's small size and lack of downy feathers, they quickly lose body heat at night when the temperature drops. As night falls, hummingbirds go into a state of torpor, a state of deep sleep where the bird lowers its metabolic rate by up to 95% allowing it to use up to 50 times less energy than it does when it is awake. In torpid state, a hummingbird's heart rate can go from 1260 beats per minute down to 50 beats per minute! Their body temperature also drops well below the normal 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Coming out of this state in the morning can take the bird over 20 minutes. As this transformation occurs, they will vibrate their wing muscles and shiver, generating heat to warm their blood and allow them to make it to their first meal.

Here's where you come in!

If their first meal is FROZEN, the hummingbird has a high probability of mortality. That's why if you choose to feed these tiny beauties, you have to commit to one of three things:

  1. Only feed in the summer or when there is no risk of the night temperature falling below 32 degrees.
  2. If you choose winter feeding, get up before dawn to put out feeders. Monitor them hourly to insure that they haven't become frozen in the chilly morning air. If they are beginning to freeze, swap them out with warm feeders from your kitchen, or warm the nectar in a glass in the microwave and replace it in the feeder after it cools.
  3. Build a hummingbird feeder HEATER out of Christmas lights and maintain the outdoor temperature of the nectar around 40 degrees. Switch it off when the ambient temperature is above freezing.

Making a feeder warmer. You'll need the following:

  • Aluminum Pie plate
  • Old-fashioned C9 Christmas lights, available at Ace hardware. I choose clear. Don't use LED, as they are advertised as "cool" and the whole object is to heat up the air between the heater and the feeder.
  • Electrical or duct tape to attach the lights to the pie plate.
  • Wire to attach the heater to the perches on the feeder. I use a "spaceship" style feeder as it exposes a large amount of nectar to the lights.
  • Hooks to hang the excess lights on the string.
  • A nearby plug or all-weather extension cord.

Poke or drill 3 holes in the pie plate.

Arrange the lights in a starburst pattern around the plate, attaching their clips to the plate edge.

Tape down the excess wire between the bulbs at the back of the plate.

Hang the lights from a hook in the ceiling of an overhang. This makes the feeder accessible to the birds, but keeps the pie plate from accumulating water or snow.

Attach the feeder to a chain or other hanging medium.

Attach the heater (approximately 3 inches below the feeder) to the feeder's perch in 3 places.

Plug in at night, or when the temperature drops. Keep the heater plugged in until the ambient temperature reaches 35 degrees or above.

No matter which method you pick, be sure you are cleaning your feeders regularly - every 2-3 days in summer and at least once a week in winter.