By Geoff Berg
We have two residential species of hummingbirds here in the Pacific Northwest, Anna’s and Rufous, but only the Anna’s stick around in our winter months. Catch sight of a male Anna’s in the sunshine and you will be amazed at just how bright the iridescent red crown and throats can be. Female Anna’s lack the red coloration, and have dark green caps and back feathers. Both bring joy to bird-watching enthusiasts, with their low-flying acrobatics and their ability to fly backwards and hover in place while taking a drink from a feeder or extracting nectar from a flower.
Gradually extending their range north from California, Anna’s were first reported in our area in 1964. One reason for the expansion of their range has been the increased planting of winter-blooming shrubs in urban gardens, which provide a source of nectar, and the proliferation of back-yard hummingbird sugar-water feeders.
If you wish to encourage Anna’s hummingbirds to stick around your yard year-round, consider planting winter blooming plants, preferably with bright colors. Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum ) with its yellow tube flowers, is perfectly shaped for a hummingbird’s long bill to get at its nectar. Winter-blooming Oregon grape varieties such as Charity( Mahonia x media ‘Charity’) bloom in January, provide much appreciated bright yellow color to your garden, and will be the source of aerial battles as hummingbirds jealously protect this nectar source. Various Camellia varieties also bloom in the late fall and winter months, as do some heath and heather cultivars. Witch hazel (Hamamelis) flowers (below) come in bright reds, copper and gold, and will attract hummingbirds even without having tube-shaped flowers.
Hummingbirds rely on a diet of small insects and spiders for protein, and derive energy from nectar and home sugar-water feeders. Why the need for extra energy? Hummingbirds typically beat their wings at the rate of fifty times a second! Sugar-water feeders are an excellent way to bring hummingbirds up close to your house for easier viewing. Anna’s will use them year-round, but they are especially valuable in the winter months when there are fewer flowers to provide nectar.
The Seattle Audubon Society recommends a year-round mix of one part sugar to four parts water (they discourage the use of red dyes or other types of sweeteners). While increased sugar content might help prevent freezing during especially cold periods, they still recommend the ratio of 1:4 sugar to water for the health of the birds. Since hummingbirds don’t feed at night, you can bring the feeders inside, to reduce the risk of freezing and cracking. Some folks keep their feeders from freezing by hanging Christmas lights close enough to warm them.
It is recommended that you change your feeder’s sugar water mix on a weekly basis, before it starts to break down and turns a cloudy color. To prevent bacteria from building up inside of your feeder and spreading disease to the hummingbirds, the Audubon Society also recommends cleaning your feeder on a weekly basis with a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water. You can use a bottle brush to clean out dirt when needed. Thoroughly rinse the feeder out three times with water before adding your sugar water feeding solution.
If you are out of town for the holidays, or just not able to re-stock your feeder, don’t worry about the survival of your resident Anna’s. Hummingbirds conserve energy in colder weather by decreasing their activity. They will spend more time perching to adjust their metabolism. On the other hand, keeping your feeder well supplied will help enhance their survival rate and continue to provide you with much natural entertainment in the winter months.