Lifestyles

Tiny tropical bird stays here all year

Small but hardy, Ana
Small but hardy, Ana's hummingbirds have adapted to cold and have been seen on Vancouver Island as far north as Port McNeill.
— image credit: Photo submitted

So far this winter we have not had to endure prolonged cold or snowy spells, but the foggy damp days are not conducive with avid bird watching.

Normally this is a great time to look out for transient species and unusual winter visitors but it seems more often there are species that have decided to stay in our area for the entire winter.

Be on the lookout for one tiny tropical bird that has decided it can survive here year round. Winter is certainly not the time we would expect to see hummingbirds, as there are no blooming flowers or other nectar sources.

Sightings of Ana's hummingbirds first happened in Victoria in the winter of 1944. These little birds have adapted to survive the winter and gradually over the years have moved up the Island as far as Port McNeill.

Rufous hummingbirds still make the annual migration south to Mexico, as they are still not able to tolerate the harsh winters.

Ana's hummingbirds are medium-sized. Measuring four inches and weighing approximately 4.3 grams, they have straight beaks and a long, sloping forehead.

The plumage coloration of both the male and female birds is similar with bronze-green upper wings and bodies; the undersides of their bodies and wings are grey.

How do you tell the male and female apart? This is a tough call when they are not in their breeding plumage but the male has a bright iridescent red head and throat setting it apart from the female that has a green head with a smattering of red patches, her tail feathers are black tipped with white spots.

Versatile, opportunistic feeders, Ana's hummingbirds have learnt to adapt to a variety of habitats including open woodlands, forest edges, mountainous areas and ever-expanding urban areas including backyards and gardens.

It is easy to tell what a bird eats by the size and shape of its beak; short, stubby beaks are designed for seed eaters — small, slender beaks for insectivores and the long, tapered bill of the hummingbirds especially designed for probing into long tubular flowers.

These birds are even better equipped than most species due to their long tongues that are as long as their beaks and can protrude deep inside the flowers. Obviously there are not available flowers for them to eat in the winter when they chose to stay but they will eat insects' and spiders and probe in old sapsucker holes to find additional food.

Apart from choosing to stay year round, Ana's are also one of the first migratory species to return from their temporary winter home, arriving here sometime in late December where their breeding will take place.

Often called "jewels of the sky," Ana's hummingbirds have amazing mating rituals that emulate Snowbird pilots, as they conduct a variety of high-speed loops and dives.

Once mated, the females construct remarkable tiny nests; no bigger than a "loonie" in diameter they are constructed using lichens, moss and thistledown. This amazing feat of engineering is then wrapped in spider's silk, which allows the nest to expand with the newly hatched babies until they are ready to fledge.

As the number of year-round hummingbirds continue to increase, I have been asked what people can do to help these birds through the cold winter.

Here are a few tips for winter feeding if you are willing to make this commitment:

Understanding a little more of what makes these birds "tick" gives a little insight as to how we feed them.

During the dark days and long nights, hummingbirds are able to survive by relying on their natural thermo regulators. They are able to drop their body temperature together with their heart and metabolic rates, putting them in a state of torpor, appearing to be in a deep sleep or even dead.

By carefully picking up a bird from the ground they will often recover once they have warmed up and will fly away. Feeders should be placed in a sheltered place with access to trees where they can hide at night.

Feeding solutions should be changed to one part nectar/sugar solution to three parts water. Food colour is not necessary.

Just as important is keeping the feeder clean from molds that also thrive in the damp weather.

Please visit our website at www.wingtips.org and check out some innovative ways people have tried to keep the feeders from freezing. Please enjoy these little birds; they do bring hours of enjoyment.

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MARS will hold another Eaglefest in Campbell River in February. Check the web for details.

To report injured wildlife, please call 250-337-2021.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Thursday.

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