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Hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and must eat all day long just to survive, usually feeding about every 10-15 minutes. So even just a few hours or a single day without food for a hummingbird can mean death. They are best known for eating nectar either from flowers or feeders, usually while hovering or perched, but insects make up a significant portion of their diet, especially in the winter months. Without this additional protein, these birds begin to suffer from nutritional imbalances within a couple days, which is why at the center we feed a nectar formula designed to meet all the birds’ needs. These birds have fascinating bills which help them reach deep into the center of flowers for nectar, but rather than sucking it up like juice through a straw, it’s the long thin forked tongue that is actually doing all the work. Hummingbirds lick nectar up like a dog lapping at a bowl of water. Not very much nectar actually makes it into the bird’s mouth in one lick, but that’s okay because hummingbirds can lick up to 13 times per second!
During winter, Anna’s Hummingbirds are exposed to shorter days, colder temperatures, and limited sources of food, yet a portion of the population are year-long residents along the Pacific Coast. So how do they do it? In addition to switching their diet; another adaptation is “torpor” which is similar to a short-term hibernation, where the bird’s metabolism and activity level drop much lower than normal. When outside temperatures fall, hummingbirds will enter torpor to conserve energy; their breathing and heart rate will slow, and their body temperature can drop as low as ~50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once the temperature warms, the hummingbird resumes normal activity again! This amazing adaptation helps these little guys survive here year-round despite being only 2 inches tall, not having a whole lot of insulation, and weighing no more than a nickel. The females, like this one, and males are both largely green and gray, but males have those unmistakable iridescent pink feathers on their throat and head, known as a gorget.
Here’s how you can help!
Ways to Support our Hummingbirds
- Hummingbirds in torpor can look like they’re in trouble, because they sit in one place and don’t respond if approached. But if you find a hummingbird in torpor, do not disturb them! Waking them up too early can use up vital energy resources, which can be life threatening.
- If you are going to provide a nectar feeder, know how much work it entails. Sugar water and store bought nectar does spoil over time, allowing mold, funguses, and bacteria to grow, which can be harmful. In addition, when a bird visits a feeder, it can leave behind pathogens that can put future visitors at risk. We recommend feeding only as much as can be eaten in a day, and cleaning your feeder daily. First clean with soap and water, then soak or spray with a 1:10 diluted bleach solution for 10 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.
- Hummingbirds can be very early nesters. Adult hummingbirds may begin nesting as early as December. The female will build the nest with plant fibers and spider webs to form a compact cup, then line the nest with plant material and feathers, then camouflage the outside with lichens. If you’re doing yard work or trimming trees & shrubs, you could accidentally disturb a nest. You can prevent this by choosing the right time to trim, and being attentive and cautious during the process.
What To Do If There’s an Animal Trapped Inside Your Building
- Make a clear exit: leave windows and doors open, and close off as much extra space as possible (close doors to the rest of the building, etc). Turn the lights off so that the exits are as bright and obvious as possible. If you can’t open a window or skylight, lower the blinds or cover it with a blanket so the bird knows it can’t get out that way.
- Keep things calm; don’t chase the bird and make sure you’re not standing in between the animal and the exit. It is best to leave the room entirely for a while. Wild birds experience people as predators, and will stay as high up as possible for safety.
- Entice toward the exit: hummingbirds will often respond to a feeder or pot of red flowers placed just outside the exit. Other food can sometimes work as well, but what will be effective depends on the species. Birds also usually move toward brighter spaces; contrast between the exit and the rest of the space is important. If you can’t make the space the bird is trapped in dark, you can wait until dusk and set up a light outside the exit to show the way.
- If the animal becomes weak or injured, and you are able to catch it, the best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water. Every species has incredibly different needs, and feeding the wrong food (or feeding when the bird is suffering from certain medical conditions) can cause a lot of harm.
Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to operate our Wildlife Care Center this past year with about 20% of our normal staffing and with about a 25% increase in our annual patient admissions. We were left with the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue providing follow-up updates on patients brought into our center so that we could focus on the daily care of the animals. And while we simply cannot write a story about each animal, our goal for this fresh and bright new year is to show you what we can: in the form of a weekly patient update! Check in every Thursday for our “Patient of the Week”; with information on the species, the circumstances that brought the animal in, and preventative advice so you can be a better steward for our wildlife!
If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your work helps us to save lives.