For the Birds: Hummingbirds in winter

 

Last updated 1/23/2024 at 9:53am

Photo by Linda Conrad

Hummingbird feeder with heater.

Remarkably, hummingbirds overwinter in Central Oregon. These toughies are Anna's hummingbirds and are amazingly stout for their 4- to 4.5-gram size. They have expanded their range into hotter and colder climates over the last 20 years. But they face real trouble in deep freeze, blizzard conditions, and icy rain. Local residents can help them survive.

Due to their petite size, hummingbirds must feed every 10 to 15 minutes or starve. These quaint birds use a handy mini-hibernation called "torpor" to survive periods of not eating, like nighttime sleep. In this state, they slow their metabolism and lower their body temperature. They literally choose to be cold rather than use energy reserves to stay warm. On a warm night, hummingbirds enter a lighter torpor stage to survive.

Freezing weather can force them into a deeper torpor state at night, and during the day. You may see these birds sitting at the feeder stoically still and even appearing dead. These birds take up to a half hour to recover from this state, so they risk predation, injury (like falling into the snow), and even death. In the morning, never wake a bird in deep torpor, but watch the bird.

Frequent or constant torpor can become a deadly cycle in which the bird goes for hours without eating. If not refueled with nectar (feeder solutions, flower nectar, or sap), they can starve. These birds also need insects; malnutrition can occur without this protein source. Hummingbirds need nectar to forage for insects.

Birds in frequent torpor preen (groom) less, leaving feathers dirty and reducing their insulating qualities. For warmth, birds rely on air, warmed by their body and trapped in clean, downy feathers. But hummingbirds have less down and less fat than larger birds.

While many of our Anna's will defy winter's threats, some will have issues staving off super frigid temperatures and finding enough food. Birds suffering from parasites, low body fat, low body weight, and inexperience are more challenged.

Hummingbirds need food most, but also warmth in the deepest cold. Keeping hummingbird feeder solutions tepid and thawed is paramount. Feeder heaters with a 25-watt bulb and heat lamps are great options. Put the feeder in a protected and warmer area, such as under the house eaves (not in front of windows). The internet is full of ideas, but be cautious.

There are essential rules for feeding hummingbirds. Keep the feeder clean and the solution fresh to prevent disease and infection. Only use a 4:1 sugar-to-water solution in Central Oregon, not 3:1, which is dehydrating. Do not keep frozen and unmanaged feeders out; it wastes their critical energy.

A bird in trouble will be in an unusual location, like tucked into a porch, hanging upside down, having body parts frozen to the feeder, dropping out of the air, falling from the feeder, or sitting and not eating for extended periods. It's always better to be too concerned than wait too long to help. Text us for assistance, 541-728-8208.

Note: 2024 is Native Bird Care's 15th year providing specialized bird rescue. For more ideas and advice, visit http://www.nativebirdcare.org.

 

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