A friend in need by John Cambridge

A Friend in Need
by John Cambridge

The recent blast of Arctic air blanketing much of North America had a calamitous effect in our back yard: the nectar in the hummingbird feeder froze. Average December temperatures for this part of interior British Columbia are 5°or 6° C (41-43°F) with lows of -2° C (28°F) so I brought the feeder in every night and took it out before first light every morning.

On Tuesday, a bitterly cold, gusty wind had me scoot back inside after I’d placed the feeder on the shepherd’s hook at seven a.m. I urged our resident pair of hummers, still sleeping somewhere in the spruce tree, to come have a drink while it was still warm never thinking three hours later one of them would be jackhammering the ice to get sustenance.

Sugar-water will freeze if left out all night even at a three to one ratio of water to sugar. The normal summertime ratio is four to one—determined by Cornell University as closely matched to the strength of flower nectar. The extra sugar usually prevents freezing plus it gives the hummingbird a much-needed energy spurt to stave off the cold. The frigid wind made the difference and I’m sure to the hummingbirds as well.

When I retrieved the feeder to warm the solution, instead of flying away the bird made about six quick jabs through the tiny drinking hole, looked around, and then went at it a few more times. He sat there with his feathers fluffed up looking like he was saying, “I’ve got a problem here. Can you help?” Whether he was cold or expecting a magic zap for the nectar I don’t know but I was less than a foot away before he flew. (A hummingbird will drink out of a nectar vial held in one’s hand)

I grabbed the feeder, spooned out the thick gel, heated the solution in the microwave, returned it to the stand and retreated inside, thinking all the while, why had this tiny creature, who can fly so well, not migrated to warmer climes.

My wife and I lived in Manitoba, a central prairie province huddled under Hudson’s Bay—which channeled frigid temperatures directly down on us, often reaching lows of -40. We are well aware of Arctic outbreaks. Upon retiring, we concluded we didn’t have to stay and freeze. Our two sons lived or planned to move to British Columbia, so the decision wasn’t difficult. The winters in BC are shorter and warmer; still, the tiny bird didn’t have to stay here.

Sixty miles from the Pacific and five miles north of Washington State, very few different winter birds grace us with their presence: Canada geese, glaucous-winged gulls, the ubiquitous crow and Stellar jay are common, and the odd bald eagle makes the occasional fly-over.

The townhouse complex we live in forbids bird feeders with seeds as the council feels they attract rats. I would argue it’s the people who don’t make their feeders rodent-proof or clean up the spilled seeds who are the problem. And argue still further that unless man assists the birds, from whom we’ve stolen habitat, the avian population will plummet.

We do see the odd chickadee (our favourite bird and will add an aside, that while in Manitoba, I “trained” chickadees to eat from my hand and even snatch a sunflower seed from my lips). We see a few Oregon juncos, and occasionally a drab tree sparrow, so the darling little jewel buzzing to our feeder is a joyous sight.

Hummingbirds, only found in the western hemisphere, are mostly associated with the tropics, but the Anna’s, Calypte anna, 3.9 in. (10 cm.) long, 4.7 in. (12 cm.) wingspan, weighing 0.1-0.2 oz. (3-6 gm.)[a nickel] has expanded its range over the last six or seven decades from southern California northward along the Pacific coast to British Columbia and eastward into parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

We never tire of watching the pair visit the feeder and then return to the tall spruce tree to watch for insects. It’s difficult to tell the male and female apart as they are both an iridescent greenish-bronze on the back, have a pale grayish stomach, and green flanks. The difference lies in the bright red head and throat of the male, yet unless the sun is right and the head is at the proper angle, this colour too is greenish-bronze. The male Anna’s is the only hummingbird with a red crown, and because of the extension down the throat, it’s like he’s wearing a burgundy balaclava. The female’s head is plain, but she has a flashy red neckpiece called a gorget, grayish-green until at certain angles the crimson will flash, and once in a while, a few feathers flare out for a further display.

It’s partially due to more people hanging feeders that have allowed the hummingbirds such mobility. Nectar only augments their nutrition, as the largest part of their diet is protein from tiny insects. Much to my surprise, I find insects in the nectar in the winter months. More I’m sure are spotted in niches in the bark of trees.

However, the main reason for the Anna’s expansion is how they’ve adapted themselves to be cold tolerant. A condition called torpor allows them to tune-out. This is much different than my—you’re-not-listening-to-a-thing-I’m-saying-are-you—mode when my wife is talking and I nap with my eyes open. For the Anna’s it’s like a nightly hibernation brought about by a reduced physiological state: Their heart rate drops from 1260 beats per minute to 50; their temperature drops from 42° C to 9° C (107° F to 48°F)—using fifty times less energy. This regulated hypothermia ends by vibrating the wings to increase blood flow, which kicks in the metabolic furnace and in about thirty minutes they’re flight ready. My observations and my reading haven’t uncovered if an internal circadian timer switches on, or the rising sun heats the air to reach a certain external temperature to instigate this process, or if it’s simply a need to raise their blood sugar level.

Climate change might play some small part in acclimatizing; however, it has taken centuries to modify the body to achieve this accomplishment. They may well survive without human intervention, but we don’t want to take a wait and see posture. The situation of feeding with plummeting temperatures addressed as soon as possible.

Our Hummzinger feeder looks like a flattened soup bowl or perhaps a saucer with sides, and a lid. There is an extended rim around the cap that provides a perch so they can sit while they eat. Three beak-size holes in the top allow access for feeding, which they do by immersing their beaks into or near the solution and repeatedly dipping their long tongues into the liquid sugar.

The shape and surface area is, unfortunately, conducive to freezing. Not wanting to see the hummer’s beak blunted by breaking ice off the food source, I tried to locate some commercial electrical heating device (they do exist) to keep the solution warmer, but to no avail. It’s only in the last few years that this species of hummingbird has elected to overwinter so the market hasn’t caught up yet.

With thinking cap, a seven-watt nightlight, Styrofoam insulation, a round plastic ice cream container and an extension cord, I cobbled together a makeshift heater. So far it’s working but I still bring it in at night.

I’ve also relocated the shepherd’s hook to a corner of fence and house to allow the feeder some protection from the wind. To keep the snow off, I modified a rain dome to fit above the heated feeder.

Now, I really don’t believe this but my quirky mind has two other hypotheses, which should be easy to disprove. The first is the little-known fact that I’ve heard often that since hummingbirds are too small to fly the vast distances from their breeding grounds in the North, they hitch a ride on the back of geese.

That sounds more like something Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock might come up with.

The second is to put myself in the place of Mr. Hummer about the time the leaves are turning colour: Decisions, decisions?

From here to Baja is about two thousand miles. At twenty-five mile per hour, that’s … holy crap that’s a lot of hours. And that’s not counting stopping for snacks about a million times, finding someplace that’s open in a strange town, and not having a headwind like we did last year. Mrs. says she wants an extra suitcase for her gorgets and two hours into the flight the kids are going to be asking if we’re there yet.

This nice couple of humans here don’t believe the fallacy that feeding birds will make them forget how to fend for themselves and make them forget about migration.

I think I’ll stay here and take my chances with my friends.

Does anyone have blueprints for a heated hummingbird chalet?

You can connect with John here.

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