Feb 1, 2016 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2016

A Surprise Winter Visitor

After being weighed, measured, and banded, the hummingbird rests in the author's hand. After this picture was taken, it flew off to a nearby tree.
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Living at Lake Oconee, about 80 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia, affords us the opportunity to see ruby-throated hummingbirds from late March through early September. With five nectar feeders going continuously, we would easily have 15 to 20 birds feeding in our yard and on our porch at any given time! Usually by September, the numbers quickly dwindle until only one or two hummingbirds appear each day.

For years I have kept a feeder up long after the hummingbirds leave with the hope of attracting a winter hummingbird. My husband and I continued that practice during the fall of 2013. In late October we noticed a single bird that I thought at first was an immature ruby-throated visiting our feeder each day. But before long I realized it was not a ruby-throated—it was a female rufous hummingbird, a rare visitor to this area during winter months. She visited our feeder daily.

In early January, we had an unbelievably cold snap, with temperatures dropping to single digits. Our nectar feeders began to freeze and we feared that our female rufous might freeze, too. Or leave.

We added two additional feeders. My husband would put a frozen feeder in front of a heater, thaw it out, and continually swap out the feeders. Anytime she visited she would find fresh, thawed nectar. It worked, and our little bird continued her visits.

She showed typical rufous behavior of dive-bombing any goldfinch or chipping sparrow that approached her feeder too closely!

A hummingbird bander visited, trapped her briefly, and determined that she was an after-hatch-year bird, and not a recent fledgling. Despite the trauma of being weighed and measured, she was completely calm as she sat on my hand. My husband had to blow softly on her body to get her to fly away. She flew to her favorite tree, and within fifteen minutes she was back eating at the feeder.

Not only did she survive the January cold snap, but she stayed with us until April 1! My first ruby-throated hummer of the year arrived around March 21, and they actually were sometimes on the porch at the same time. The two hummingbird species never seemed to share the same feeder, though!

When she left, we never saw her again, although we continue to keep nectar feeders out and fresh well into autumn. Maybe someday. She made a dreary and cold winter much more fun for my husband and me.

About Jeane Pirkle

Jeane Pirkle and her husband Jim enjoy traveling to bird festivals, but also enjoy feeding and watching birds on their back porch overlooking Lake Oconee, Georgia.

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  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018
  • I had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018