Yes, hummingbirds enter a form of deep sleep during the winter known as torpor. They can enter a state of torpor or an energy-saving state that allows them to survive through the winter months in colder climates.
Essentially, it’s a period of reduced metabolic activity during which an animal remains in a dormant state (inactive) for extended periods. Hummingbird torpor isn’t like human sleep at all—it’s more like hibernation—and it’s not just hummingbirds who do it!
Some bats and insects also hibernate during winter when temperatures drop below freezing. Hummingbirds are little birds that don’t have much fat stored in their bodies. They’re little creatures with a high metabolism, so they have to rely on other conservation methods like torpor to get through the winter months.
Their metabolism slows down significantly in this state, and they can enter into a deep sleep-like state. When a hummingbird is in torpor, it may appear stiff and unresponsive, but at dawn it will begin to warm itself up and prepare for flight.
While hummingbirds are sleeping, their body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and oxygen consumption decline significantly. The metabolism rate can drop as low as one-fifteenth of normal; this allows the bird to use less energy. All in all, the hummingbird will use about 50% less energy than it does during the day.
This preservation mechanism allows them to survive cold nights and have high energy afterward. The hummingbird will need about 20 minutes to an hour to recover from this state of sleep and have enough energy for another flight around the neighborhood! But these are not just naps; we’re talking about a full deep sleep that can maintain body heat.
Hummingbirds generally move during the day and sleep at night. Sometimes they also sleep during the day, but not regularly. There is only one hummingbird species that is an exemption to this. The Ruby-throated hummingbird does skip their torpor state during migration.
When the Ruby-throated hummingbird migrates over the Gulf of Mexico, it does not have time to stop and sleep at night. While in the process of migrating, the hummingbird doesn’t make any stops and will not sleep during the night.
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How do hummingbirds sleep?
Sleeping hummingbirds nest in sheltered locations – often between tree branches – oak or birch trees are their favorite spots. Because of their small size and low body weight, they’re at risk of being victims of cold weather – so they found a way to counteract that: sleeping in an upside-down position.
Hummingbirds sometimes sleep in trees by hanging upside down from branches with their feet gripping tightly and beaks pointing upward. But this is more than a sleeping habit; this helps keep them from falling out of their perch while sleeping during storms or windy weather conditions (which can cause them to lose their grip).
Not all hummingbirds sleep like this. Mother hummingbirds usually sleep next to their chicks to keep them warm. The same goes for female hummingbirds sometimes. You’ll see them roosting in their nests during the winter.
Torpor vs. Hibernation: What’s the Difference?
Torpor is often confused with hibernation, but it differs in several ways. Here are some of them:
- Torpor is typically an involuntary state that animals have to enter when conditions ask for it
- Hibernation occurs over several months, while lasts only a short time. In conclusion, hibernation involves a long-term reduction in body temperature, whereas torpor involves a short-term decrease
- Foraging can happen in torpor, while in hibernation, animals don’t seek food
- Small animals engage in torpor more frequently, and more giant animals in hibernation.
How can you help hummingbirds during the winter?
Until the weather starts warming, you need to ensure that a lot of energy is available for these small birds. There are a few ways to help hummingbirds quickly transition from winter to spring: providing shelter and food. Here are some of our favorites:
- During the winter, artificial lighting can help hummingbirds search for (and find) food more efficiently.
- Keep the
hummingbird feederin sight so they can also have access to food, so the risk of them freezing while looking for it is lower.
- Keep birdhouses outside as well so they may have extra shelter if needed.
- Sometimes it may seem like they are not breathing and that there is no heartbeat, but do not get fooled. While birdwatching them during the winter, be careful not to wake them up. You may be inclined to do so when you see such a tiny bird hanging upside down.
Hummingbirds are symbols of everlasting energy. They seem to be constantly on the go, often searching for nectar to provide them with energy to continue their journeys and survive. However, hummingbirds also enter torpor – a winter sleep that may require the animals to involuntarily drift off into deep sleep.
Hummingbirds don’t hibernate during the winter like other animals (bears). The science of it is a bit complicated and involves reverse thermogenesis and body temperature regulation. Still, the bird’s metabolism slows, and its body temperature drops.
We’ve seen how this manifests, so next time we see a seemingly inert hummingbird, we know not to disturb its precious sleep. If they survive under such conditions, they may emerge during a warm spell and seek out nectar until the next cold snap hits several months later. Who would have thought that these little birds could survive such harsh winters?