nature, photography, wildlife

hummingbirds in the wintertime

I want to give a big thanks to Lisa Milbank, our local Neighborhood Naturalist. During a conversation the other day, she off-handedly mentioned that she has been stressing about all of the cold hummingbirds in our current winter weather. It has been in the low teens and single digits for the last few days, so not only are our cars, streets, and pipes freezing,  the sweet nectar the hummerbirds feed on to stay alive and active is also freezing.

I had just noticed the other morning that our feeder was frozen solid. I made a frown face  and didn’t think much more than “oh, that is no good,” and then I walked inside. I hadn’t considered that this may have been the ONLY feeder in the area and the ONLY nectar available for the two Anna’s hummingbirds that hang out in my neck of the ‘hood.

When Lisa continued to tell me (with worry in her eyes) that the little birds need food sugar about every 15 minutes  — due to the bird’s fast breathing rate, fast heartbeat and high body temperature — my heart sank to the floor.

They require an enormous amount of food each day. And I don’t think my hummers had a secondary food source at this time. The female sits in the tree nearby and stare at the feeder.

Lisa took a guess that without food, my local birds could have possibly gone into torpor. What is torpor, I asked? She went on to describe it in detail: Simply, torpor is when the bird goes in to a sort of hibernation state to conserve energy throughout the night. They may also go into torpor during the day if they cannot locate food energy. goes on to say, “…hummingbirds have huge metabolic demands that must be met simply to survive the night when they cannot forage. To meet this energetic challenge, hummingbirds save enough energy to survive cold nights by lowering their internal thermostat at night, becoming hypothermic. This reduced physiological state is an evolutionary adaptation that is referred to as torpor. Torpor is a type of deep sleep where an animal lowers its metabolic rate by as much as 95%. By doing so, a torpid hummingbird consumes up to 50 times less energy when torpid than when awake. This lowered metabolic rate also causes a cooled body temperature. A hummingbird’s night time body temperature is maintained at a hypothermic threshold that is barely sufficient to maintain life.”

(Whew. Did you get all of that?)

I called Sylvan instantly and asked him to take down the feeder and thaw it as quickly as possible. I was walking home that evening from work due to the snow, so I had at least an hour to go before I could get home. He was more than happy to thaw it and give those babes some food. Sylvan ended up meeting me halfway on my walk home so I got the good news early! Just after hanging the feeder, one of the birds was there in an instant! They were both extremely hungry and we became their new best friends.

One of the tips Lisa gave me was to keep a heat source near the feeder. She suggested stringing some (non-LED) Christmas lights around the feeder to help keep the liquid temperature up. Conveniently, I had an extra two feet of string lights just rolled up in a ball at the end of my porch. There was an extra hook near by, so it made for a perfect setting!


We have had to re-thaw the water each morning thus far since Friday. We usually check on it again if we are there at some point during the day. They have gotten to the point that if we come near the feeder, they are there in an instant, ready to pass on a long beak high five and have a sugar water chat. 🙂

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Lisa also told me that they are territorial, even with one another — which is why, even as a male and female “couple” they arrive to the feeder one at a time and usually upon lift off, the other swoops down, harasses the fully-fed bird, and then comes in for a landing to have its own fill up.

Fun fact: Hummingbirds have a long tongue which they use to lick their food at a rate of up to 13 licks per second.

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The female Anna was quick to land and rest while she enjoyed her sugar snack. She didn’t seem to mind that I was still standing on the ledge, only a few inches from the feeder. It was a rare sight to see. The colorful male Anna however didn’t want to take the chance. He continued in fluttering flight, which was also quite a sight to see. 40-50 times per second in normal flight.

Fun fact: Hummers are the only bird that can fly forwards, backwards, up, down, sideways or sit in sheer space.


So, if you have a feeder, please please please take a moment to check on it throughout the cold winter months. I am thankful that Lisa shared her knowledge with me and I want to make sure I pass on the simple reminder to help those in need.  The hummers will be ever thankful. For more info on how to live in harmony with your local wildlife, check out Lisa’s Neighborhood Naturalist site for some really get info and tips!

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