The topic of a lot of my phone calls, emails and text messages this fall has been about hummingbirds and feeders in winter, and to be perfectly frank about it, it's a worrisome conundrum.
Right off the bat, sugar water is not "food" for hummingbirds. It's like humans and soda pop. The birds get an instant shot of energy from sugar water in the feeder, but (as far as I know) there isn't enough nutrition in it to keep them alive and healthy.
When hummers poke their long beaks into blossoming flowers, there's a lot more going on than guzzling nectar. There's a krijillion tiny arthropods (animals with jointed legs) that are also inside that flower the hummingbirds scrounge in for nectar. Some are insects, some or millipedes, some are arachnids (spiders and their kin). But with or without legs or wings, every one of them has what hummingbirds require for sustenance, which plain old sugar water does not supply.
Hummingbirds can get hooked on feeders. They see the red which attracts them to come look at the device, then they spy the hole and bingo! It wouldn't surprise me if researchers also found that hummingbirds—zipping along at 60 mph—can recognize the shape of a feeder from a long distance and will suddenly change course and stop for a quick shot of energy.
I know for sure they can see red quickly. Years ago, when my wife Sue and I, along with Rick and Connie Hewitt, were running Ramsey Canyon Preserve—known then as the "Hummingbird Capitol of the World"—in Arizona, I decided to see how well a hummer could see red. I cut a dime-sized piece of red tape and placed it on my forehead right between my eyes, hiding myself in the underbrush.
I wasn't there more than 30 seconds when a big, blue-throated hummingbird was hovering right between my eyes, its beak touching the tape. I was afraid it was going to drill a hole in my forehead.
We don't have blue-throats in our neck of the woods, but Anna's, Rufous and a few Calliope hummingbirds are common through the summer. Many of us here in the Sisters Country put up feeders for them as soon as our flowers begin to bloom in spring.
Oh, and before I forget, PLEASE, PLEASE! DO NOT use food coloring in the sugar water. Believe me, if the feeder is red, that's good enough. Stay away from commercial hummingbird solution with food coloring in it. The chemicals used to create coloring can't be good for hummingbirds, and from what I've read about it, even if it's approved by some government agency, it ain't good for humans either. Just make up a quart three parts water and one part sugar and let it go at that.
But what to do about hummers in winter? Here's what I do, and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm doing it right. Just about the time we have our first really organized frost that leaves ice on the windshield of my trusty, old Toyota 4-Runner way past sunup, I take my feeder in that night.
As the days continue to get colder I make a point to watch the spot where the feeder was hanging, looking for any sign of a hummer searching for it. If one turns up I'll refill the feeder and bring it back into service for as long as the day stays warm. My thinking is the hummer has been here before while migrating south and needs that charge of energy to keep going on. But as soon as the frost nights return I take it back in, wash it out, rinse it well and put it away for the winter.
Then when I take a trip around Central Oregon, what do I see hanging in plain sight? Yep, hummingbird feeders. I can recall vividly seeing one hanging from the balcony of the Quimby Street Apartment in Bend where my mom lived years back. One day in February, a Rufous was hovering in front of it—at around 20 degrees.
I called two of my best sources for birds about hummingbird feeders in winter. Both told me they left their feeders up all winter and only took them in at night to keep them from freezing. That really troubled me because I was (and to some extent, still am) convinced that leaving feeders up in winter will only keep a hummer here in winter, where it will eventually freeze to death.
Yes, hummers can go into a "torpor," a state of mental and physical inactivity, with partial or total insensibility and lowered physiological activity. This will increase the bird's tolerance for intense cold for as long as 36 hours—maybe to the point of protecting a hummer when the outside temperature goes down to zero. But in the Sisters Country, that low can go on for as long as a week, or longer, with several days of temperatures below the freezing point during the day.
I wonder if a hummer can wake up enough during the sunny day to fly over to a feeder, get some slurps of warm sugar water and then settle into another topor for a few days. I hope so.
In reference to hummingbird winter migration and feeders, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology states:
"A number of factors trigger the urge for birds to migrate, but the most significant one is day length. When the days get shorter, the hummingbirds will move on, regardless of whether there are still filled feeders available for them.
We do, however, encourage people to keep their hummingbird feeders full for several weeks after they have seen the last hummer, just in case there are stragglers in need of additional energy before they complete their long journey south."
Does that mean leave them up all winter? Makes me wonder...
And then there's this from the Seattle Audubon Society: "There are many documented reports of hummingbirds that survive the snow and freezing temperatures. In fact, Anna's hummingbird(s) winter in the state of Washington where they endure cold periods well—as long as they have food sources."
The SAS webpage states: "If you have been feeding hummingbirds and they have become accustomed to finding food in your yard, we would encourage you to continue this responsibility of maintaining this food supply as much as possible through the cold snap."
A "cold snap" in Seattle, however, is not like a "cold snap" in Central Oregon, where nights can go down to 10-below zero. I can recall back in 1958 when it went down to 36-below zero at night in Bend, and stayed there for about a week!
But maybe going into a torpor, where an animal lowers its metabolic rate by as much as 95 percent, and a torpid hummingbird consumes up to 50 times less energy than when awake, will be enough to save its bacon.
So I'll leave it up to you. If you feel leaving your feeder out during the day in winter is doing the right thing for a hummer who didn't get into the migration frame of mind, then so be it. But please take it in at night to keep it from freezing. Who knows, with climate change upon us, maybe a Mexican long-tongued bat may wander through and stop by your feeder for a shot of energy as well.