Hummingbird Chronicles

Gratitudes

Thank you to the following people who conferred with me about how to help keep our hummingbirds alive in the recent severe cold spell: Fellow Whidbey Islanders: Debbie Dix, Pip Gordon, Jim and Karen Carbone, Jane Sykes, and, of course, Christina Baldwin; Port Townsend: Pam Sampel and John Sager; and Amanda Fenton, Vancouver, BC.

Close-up hummingbird photo credits:Bonnie Rae Nygren, friend, colleague and nature photographer extraordinaire

Female Anna’s hummingbird at a feeder, photo: Bonnie Rae Nygren (bonnierae@braenstorm.com)

A primer

Anna’s hummingbirds weigh less than a nickel and are the smallest migrating bird in North America. Additionally, they have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird! The great majority of the mighty mites migrate from the Pacific Northwest/Canadian west coast to southern California and Baja Mexico for the winter. However, in recent decades increasing numbers of them have remained in the Pacific Northwest all year long due primarily to the availability of feeders and introduced landscape plants that flower in the autumn.

Male Anna’s hummingbird, photo by Bonnie Rae Nygren (bonnierae@braenstorm.com)

The middle week of January 2024, the Pacific Northwest endured an extreme week-long siege of sub-freezing temperatures and snow. And those of us who feed Anna’s hummingbirds were on high alert, helping one another figure out how to keep the sugar water in our feeders from freezing solid, sometimes rotating our thawed water on an hourly basis. (Night time air temperatures were well below freezing: 15-20 0 F. or -9 to -7 0 C.)

Anna’s hummingbirds get through long cold nights by going into torpor—lowering their body temperature to conserve energy like an overnight version of hibernation. However, in the morning they must warm up their bodies almost immediately and they can only do that by consuming sugar water. If their feeders of sugar water (the only consistent winter food source) are frozen, or if they haven’t enough reserve stamina to get to the feeders, they will die.

Part 1

Sometimes all you need is a pair of kind, warm hands.

One morning a couple of weeks before the deep, cold, and snow hit, I opened the front door to check my weather station and found a female Anna’s hummingbird splat on the mat at my feet. (It was still dark and about 45 0 F. or 7 0 C.) I carefully picked it up, sad to see that one of my feeder’s hummers had died. However, as I was holding it, I could feel the tiniest beat of its little heart.

I cupped its frail body inside my hands and came into the house. Christina prepared warm sugar water. We went back outside. I dipped its beak into the water three times and could see its tongue moving. In an explosion of activity it flew straight up to the porch light and then fell down onto Christina’s shoulder and then back onto the porch mat.

There were still two hours until dawn, which is the hummer’s normal signal to begin flying and looking for food. We turned off the porch light, set the little dish of sugar water near where the hummer was sitting, went inside and waited. Two hours later I walked around the house to look on the porch and our little female was gone! She had regained enough energy to fly and presumably feed!

The previous dusk, we had heard her fluttering inside the skylight well, set over the entrance to our home. Apparently unable to figure out that she needed to fly down to get out, she had roosted at the top ledge. Perhaps the struggle had depleted her inner reserves and she literally had no energy to stay in her roost all night long. When had she fallen? How much longer would she have lived lying there? Unanswered questions. A mystery and for now the apparent joy of “saving” a hummingbird.

Part 2

In times of challenge we all need community.

Ann putting her hummer feeder out before dawn in the big cold

Originally my blog was going to be an enhanced version of the above story. But then the most severe cold snap in 30 years of living here arrived and the story of hummingbirds turned into a community effort.

Saturday, January 12, we awoke to an air temperature of 17 0F. (-8 0 C.) The wind chill index was 0 0F. (-17 0 C.). I put my hummingbird feeder out before dawn. Within an hour it had nearly frozen solid, so I quickly brought it in and changed out the liquid—and this was with a feeder warmer underneath! Not sure how I was going to keep this up all day, I texted friends about techniques they were using. This community network of nature and hummingbird lovers shared a wealth of information. Enclosed are a couple of photos of the more creative ideas I received.

Put an old wool sock over the glass and gain several hours of freezing prevention

 

Make the sugar water stronger: 1/3 c. sugar/1 c. water and put a heater underneath, this photo taken before the snow arrived

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sophisticated system that feeds 35-40 Anna’s hummers every winter, photo by Pamela Sampel and system by John Sager

Part 3

Nature’s ways are sometimes hard to understand. We have no choice but to accept and honor them.

Once again, I thought my hummingbird chronicles would only include Part 1 and 2. And then came Part 3.

On the morning of January 16, five days into our deep freeze, I had put our feeder out with its “enhanced” sugar water and heater and about 30 minutes later went out to walk our dog Vivi. Just beyond the back steps, she was sniffing something on the ground right underneath the feeder. Pulling her back, I realized it was a female Anna’s hummingbird.

Tenderly trying to warm a frozen hummer

Removing my gloves, I carefully picked her up and came inside to practice our warming technique.

We set the tiny hummer into a little container and set her on the hot air register.

 After nearly fifteen minutes we did not perceive any heartbeat, but we did not give up. We put some sugar water on her beak and set her in a little warming nest on our heat register.

She looked so perfect sitting there. We kept believing she would resurrect. But the stress of five nights of extreme torpor and recovery had been too much. Was she the same little female we had been able to revive three weeks earlier? Had the stress of that hard night reduced her resilience? Had she been flying towards the feeder and simply failed to have the energy to reach it? We will never know.

But we do know that we had the incredible privilege to interact kindly and compassionately with a wild creature. For the next three hours the male Anna’s that frequents our feeder alternated between feeding and sitting near the feeder. Was he looking for his lost companion?

The male Anna’s waited for nearly three hours on the nail just above the feeder. Located just under the roof.

Later that morning, we saw two other females visit the feeder. We were relieved to see the male would have companionship for the rest of the winter. How quickly hummingbirds must let go of their perceived grief and return to the business of survival!

 To deal with our grief, we set the little female in a nest we found last summer fallen from a nearby tree.  We have created a tiny altar of appreciation in our dining room. Maybe twice, but certainly once, this little bird needed our help. We did our very best. We take solace in the privilege of this sacred interaction that brought us closer to the fine line between the wild and domesticated and between life and death.

To help US with our grief, we created a little altar in the dining room with the brave little female resting in a nest we discovered last summer.

 

29 replies
  1. Suzanne Tedesko
    Suzanne Tedesko says:

    Lovely piece, Ann.
    We actually took down our feeders as cold weather approached, afraid the hummingbirds would come to depend on them as we’re frequently out of town and unable to be consistent. Not sure then or now that it was the right thing to do.
    Suzanne

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Hello Suzanne, Yes, you did the right thing! Anyone who knows they cannot be around in the winter, or have a neighbor take care of their feeders, should remove their hummingbird feeder by September(when there are still some flowers out) and not put it back up until March(when some flowering plants are available). That just applies in the Pacific Northwest. Other areas may have different timing. The key is to signal the hummers to migrate in the fall. They will welcome feeding upon their return and won’t migrate back until their little systems miraculously know when there are some local blooms. Ann

      Reply
  2. Anne Stine
    Anne Stine says:

    thank you dear Ann for this very wise and useful guidance and teaching on how to care for our hummingbird friends. An amazing and inspiring story, so full of your loving care and intention to serve. We need lots of stories like this in these times, or any time for that matter. I will follow your wise guidance. Gratitude, dear friend…. Anne

    Reply
  3. Liz B.
    Liz B. says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this information to save hummingbirds in the winter. Even in Texas, we have had freezing weather too cold for the two Rufous Hummingbirds who decided to winter with us here. I researched and found out the same information as you did. We got a feeder warmer and upped the sugar content as you did. They made it through the 15 degree F. temps we had this week! Then it warmed up to 72F. Texas weather changes on a dime!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      I love this report Liz! And, of course, Texas would get temps too cold for hummers sometimes. So very glad to know I have a kindred spirit in Texas! Ann

      Reply
  4. Brenda Peddigrew
    Brenda Peddigrew says:

    Anne, the tenderness I felt while reading this post felt so beautiful – what you are doing in relationship to these sweet small creatures is definitely and truly of the heart…many hearts coming together as one!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, dear Brenda. Yes, it is a “calling” for me to be kind and tender with my fellow creatures. And often times right action is not to interact with wild creatures. I think that is part of why it is so very rewarding to work with the tiny hummers. In the winter especially they need our kindness! Ann

      Reply
  5. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    I love this post! I watched this play out all around me during this unprecedented cold. I can hardly find words to express my deep gratitude to others for their creative ways of caring. The Anna’s are such a resilient lot. The last two springs I was lucky enough to witness nesting rufous hummingbirds too. These tiny creatures have a larger than life presence. Thank you for your deep care and concern. Nature makes us better in every way 💓 ( And thank you for sharing my photos)

     

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Appreciate your comment so very much, Bonnie. It gives me a chance to say again THANK YOU for sharing your beautiful photos for this post and for your ongoing blog In Search of the Very. You are so skilled and so generous and such a tender of nature yourself. Blessings, Ann

      Reply
  6. Margaret L Brown
    Margaret L Brown says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story, Ann. I love all the learning that takes place, not only with yourselves but with the community. Then Respect and Honoring, this is sometimes all we can do.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      You know this all too well being an avid Monarch station keeper. And isn’t it beautiful to have a respectful, close-up way to interact with wild creatures? Love, Ann

      Reply
  7. Susan C Prescott
    Susan C Prescott says:

    Hello dear Ann, may I use your hummingbird piece in the Whidbey Audubon newsletter February issue? For the online version, I’d be more brief and include a link to the full story.

    Reply
  8. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Thank you for your great community spirit. I started taking a bird watching class (8 weeks) and learned Hummingbirds catch insects mid-flight and not just feeding on necter from plants. Their nose bombing is really swooping-up bugs. I will be writing a piece on Hummingbirds in the next few months. Stay warm!

    Reply
  9. Judy Dixon
    Judy Dixon says:

    Ann, it seems to me most of the Island was on a quest to feed the hummers during the great freeze. All my feeder friends were trying various ways to keep the cold at bay. Lots of posts about it too, seems everyone loves Hummingbirds!! My solution was to wrap the bottle with a neck scarf in which I had placed two disposable hand warmers (like the ones that go inside your ski gloves). It gave me quite a few hours before the bottle froze over and had to be thawed. Wish I could have come up with a way to give them some warmth too, wasn’t able to solve that problem. Stay Warm out there.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Yes, Judy, I think everyone does love hummingbirds! And what a wonderful creative idea for keeping your bottle from freezing—hand warmers, who would have thought? Yup, I thought a lot about them at night wondering how and earth such a tiny, warm-blooded creature who has lowered its metabolism could keep from freezing solid in those temperatures! One of my hummer friends said, “They are incredibly tough little creatures!” Indeed. Thanks for writing, Ann

      Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Ah Beebe, perhaps this is a story you could share with little Leo. The photos would have him asking many questions. Ann

      Reply
  10. Linda
    Linda says:

    Dear Ann, I can’t imagine anyone telling this beautiful story in a more loving and compassionate way. This would make a wonderful children’s book don’t you think?

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, Linda. I do think it would make a wonderful children’s book. How do you think Zoe would react just to looking at the pictures? Ann

      Reply
  11. Larry Houff
    Larry Houff says:

    Ann, you’re a Minnesota native. You know how nasty our winters are temperature wise. This past Monday it was brutally cold. And suddenly three sparrows appeared in the grill of a recently turned off pickup truck. I’m guessing the heat felt good.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Yes, Larry, always grateful for my Minnesota roots and how much they taught me about so many things—not the least of which is how to weather short cold spurts. Really love the story of the three smart Minnesota sparrows! Ann

      Reply
  12. Jana
    Jana says:

    Many years ago, I met a woman at a conference who had had to bring a little cage with her that held the butterfly she was nursing back to health. This was her “thing” … along with actually mending their broken wings. The tenderness in your story reminded me of her … and both stories brought unexpected tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for caring.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write. So glad you let your heart be deeply touched by the vulnerability of tiny creatures and our ability to help them. Blessings, Ann

      Reply
  13. Annamae Doyle
    Annamae Doyle says:

    Your passion for your subject matter shines through in every post. It’s clear that you genuinely care about sharing knowledge and making a positive impact on your readers. Kudos to you!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Yes, Annamae, I am very passionate about the things I chose to write about. So glad to hear from you. Ann

      Reply

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