Tiny Warrior Hummingbirds

The Anna’s Hummingbird is Vancouver’s Official Bird, elected to the post in 2017.
I imagine they won by simply staring at the competition like this  . . .

. . . until they withdrew their applications.

All of that avian attitude is certainly in play this week as temperatures plunge far below seasonal norms and snow blankets the Vancouver landscape.

Every morning when I open the back door, I hear a loud and indignant tutting.

I would not be surprised to hear an accompanying request to speak to the manager.

You can see why the Anna’s Hummingbirds might be a bit exasperated. Over the past 70 years, milder winters, flowery gardens and well-tended hummingbird feeders have convinced them to expand their range from southern California to southern BC.

Some time in the 90’s they started to forgo the southern migration and stay here all winter. This week, however, I think they’re wondering if it’s too late to book that package holiday to the sun. They are not alone in that.

Luckily, they’re remarkably tough little birds. Delicate as they look, they have a few winter survival tricks up their iridescently-feathered sleeves.

Unlike other hummingbirds, the Anna’s isn’t solely reliant on nectar for sustenance. Insects, spiders and tree sap broaden their dietary options.

During the cold nights they enter an “energy save” mode, called torpor. During this mini-hibernation, their heart rate slows from a daytime rate of 21 beats per second to a mediative one beat per two seconds. At the same time their body temperature lowers from a toasty 107 degrees to 48.

In spite of their toughness, they could use our help this week.

While temperatures are below freezing for days on end, the insect and tree sap supply is out of commission. Waking up from their night-time torpor, they need breakfast ASAP to top up the energy banks and, right now, hummingbird feeders are their only option. Equipped with formidable memories, these little birds can remember the location of each food source in their territory, and if they get to the feeder in your garden and it’s empty or frozen, they will be very, very disappointed in you . . .

. . . and you certainly don’t want that!

Some tips for keeping your hummingbird feeder thawed and snow-free:

  • Keep at least two feeders so you can keep one in the house thawed and ready to replace the frozen one outside
  • Hang the feeder under cover if possible, or with a bird feeder dome over it to stop the nectar ports from getting snow-covered
  • External heat sources will help to keep the nectar thawed. Ideas include: a trouble light hung nearby, incandescent (the old-style heat-producing) Christmas lights hung around the feeder, hand warmers, mug warmer or aquarium mat (for lizards) taped to bottom of feeder
  • Insulating the feeder with old socks or bubble wrap can help

If the worst happens and you find a hummingbird in distress and too cold or tired to fly, contact your local wildlife rescue. More information here from Wildlife Rescue BC.

If you’d like to read more about these amazing birds, this well-headlined Tyee article by Kerry Banks is full of fun facts:
The Amazingly Cool Anna’s Hummingbird Scoffs at Winter|
Vancouver’s official bird is a sex-crazed, smart, supercharged recent arrival.

 

 

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Novice Hummingbird

Some of us always read the manual. Others do not (except in the direst emergency.)

It would seem that our little Anna’s Hummingbird falls into the latter category.

From everything I’ve ready about these tiny little birds, they meet most of their liquid needs from sipping nectar — from feeders or flowers. I have a water mister attached to my birdbath which hummingbirds are supposed to enjoy for bathing in and drinking.  While robins, chickadees, bushtits, flickers and even crows, seem to adore the mister, I’ve yet to see a hummingbird use it.

Robin-in-a-mist

We just moved a stone lion fountain we’ve had for a while to the front of my studio and, since it’s been there, a very young Anna’s Hummingbird has been to “take the waters” there several times a day.

 

As far as I can gather, hummingbirds are not meant to drink like this. But, as I said, this one has not yet consulted the hummingbird instruction booklet …

Might as well just go for it …

She actually seems to have a bit of a  technique there — spreading her wings on the outside of the fountain to stop herself from diving right in.

She does do some more “normal” things, like sipping nectar from flowers …

… and from the good old plastic feeder …

Educational Sidebar . . .

Those hummingbird tongues are a miracle of ingenuity in themselves. Until very recently, it was believed that they acquired nectar using capillary action. Some scientists thought that the lightening speed at which they feed made capillary action seem too slow a method, so they set up feeding stations with elaborate slow motion recording equipment. In 2015 they discovered that Nature’s design is even more amazing, involving an intricate pumping action created by the elasticity of the hummingbird tongue. You can see one of the videos they made, and read more in this New York Times article, The Hummingbird Tongue: How It Works.

When our little hummingbird is  getting a bit tired from all that fountain exploration and cleverly engineered sipping, she settles into a quiet spot for a birdnap.

I find the following thirty second video of her taking a quiet moment oh-so delicately balanced on the end of a bit of old honeysuckle vine remarkably relaxing.  I keep it on my phone so I can watch it when I feel the world is going mad.

 

And, speaking of relaxation . . . in a week from now I’m heading to the UK for a month. As I’m a one woman operation, I’ll be closing the online shop from May 28 until July 1, so if you have something you’d like to order before I go, now is the moment …

While I’m gone, apart from spending much anticipated time with family and friends, I hope to see some Tower ravens, meet some of my favourite UK artists, go on some hikes and see lots of British birds. I’ll just have a little point and shoot camera with me, but I’ll try to keep you updated on the highlights as I go.  I’ll certainly be posting on Instagram and Facebook and may even manage a blog post or two.

Till then, I leave you with the thought that, although manuals are often handy, sometimes it’s fun to figure things out as you go along.

P.S. Some of my most popular posted images, including the top image of the hummingbird at the fountain are available in a new section in my shop: By Special Request.

Winter Hummingbird

Anna's hummingbird female

This fluffed up little female Anna’s hummingbird seems to have opted to over-winter in Vancouver. She may be wishing that she’d booked her winter getaway in the fall …but too late now. She’s here for the winter, and I feel committed to help her make it to spring.

I was horrified last week, the day we were rushing to get set up for a winter market, to see that the nectar I’d put out for her had frozen solid overnight. I pictured her tiny little frozen iridescent body somewhere in the snow. But no, she flitted by — so still alive! I had a second chance.

I put a fresh batch of nectar out for her and went off to the market. When I came home the feeder was covered in snow so the hummingbird couldn’t get at the fkk. New crisis management techniques were needed. A quick internet search brought up a number of solutions. The equipment most easily to hand was a trouble light, so I plugged that in close to the feeder to keep things warm enough to prevent freezing. That worked wonderfully for the next 24 hours.

feeder-at-night

Enter a caption

The next, very snowy, day I came home from the market (luckily Make-It at the PNE is walking distance from home) to take the dog out. I heard a persistent clicking noise by my studio and noticed that (a) the bulb in the trouble light had gone out and (b) the hummingbird was sheltering under the eaves of the studio and looking at me with a touch of exasperated indignation.

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The bulb in the trouble light had burned out and the feeder was covered in snow. I replaced it. The next day it burned out again, so I built a “quick and dirty “shelter to keep the snow and rain off it. It’s been working fine since then. As a back-up, I have another feeder that adheres to the studio window. The heat from the building keeps it from freezing, although it’s been so unseasonably cold in Vancouver this week that it’s still been frozen in the morning.

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I posted my trouble light solution on Facebook and Instagram and got some great additional tips from other people. Here are some of them:

  • Bring the nectar in at night and put it out first thing in the morning. Normally this would be the easiest solution in Vancouver, but this week it’s been so cold that the nectar can freeze during the day. Plus, you might sleep in …
  • Find some old style incandescent Christmas lights and wrap them around the feeder. The heat of the bulbs will keep the nectar from freezing. This sounds great, and a lot prettier than the trouble light, so I’m on the hunt for some old-style fairy lights!
  • Wrap an old sock around the feeder to keep it warm.
  • Tuck some foot or hand warmers (the kind you get in a pack, open and shake and they give off heat for about 8 hours – available in bulk at Costco) in the sock.

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Here’s a photo of the hummingbird taken this morning. It’s getting colder all this week, so I’ll have to keep an eye on the trouble light. Maybe I’ll add the sock and foot warmer as a back-up in case the bulb goes out again.

When I take these extra measures to keep the hummingbird alive, I feel a bit like a kid leaving cookies out for Santa.

That’s partly because hummingbirds in general —and hummingbirds in a Canadian winter in particular — are rather magical.

And partly because the hummingbird brings me presents.

In return for just a little fiddling with trouble lights and extension cords, I get the gift of transcendent beauty. It’s a really good deal for me!