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
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.
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.
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.
In times of challenge we all need community.
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.
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.
Removing my gloves, I carefully picked her up and came inside to practice our warming technique.
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?
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.