How to protect hummingbirds during a spring cold snap

An Anna's hummingbird perched on a branch By spencerseesbirds/Shutterstock

However much we want spring to come, it often drags its feet. But no matter our frustration with reluctant above-zero temps, imagine a tiny Anna’s hummingbird, the only species that waits winter out in its territory along the west coast of North America, delighted to return to a favourite feeder only to find that sweet nectar encased in ice and completely inaccessible. Hummingbirds can consume half their body weight in sugar daily and have the highest metabolism of any warm-blooded animals on earth. With most of their food sources unavailable to them in the winter, they need that food.

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The unpredictable weather this time of year has prompted a few wildlife groups to ask bird lovers to carefully monitor their hummingbird feeders. “These long winters are hard for Anna’s hummingbirds,” says Jackie McQuillan, the support centre manager with the Wildlife Rescue Association of BC on Burnaby Lake. “All of the other hummingbirds take what I would call the easier route and fly south for the winter,” she says, “but these birds, since about the 1940s, have stuck around the Lower Mainland and other areas of southern B.C.” Researchers theorize that various flowering invasive plant species provided food sources into cooler months, which kept the Anna’s hummingbirds from heading south with their avian associates. Whatever the reason, the hardy little birds stay put. And these days, many Anna’s hummingbirds rely on feeders as a winter food source.

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McQuillan urges anyone with a feeder to commit to keeping it filled and paying particular attention during cold snaps to ensure that feeders are accessible. The easiest thing, McQuillan says, is to have two feeders and swap them out for each other during below freezing temperatures. You can also purchase a feeder warmer at a bird supply store or online. (It looks something like a lamppost with a feeder incorporated.) Some people attach hand warmers to their feeders. If you’re a truly enterprising DIYer, you can also jury-rig incandescent light bulbs to feeders. Google can guide you to instructions.

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Cleanliness is crucial too, McQuillan says, as diseases can spread easily at feeders. Once a week, wash your feeder with a 10 per cent bleach solution (nine parts water, one part bleach). Give it a good rinse and then refill it. And McQuillan leaves us with a heartbreaking caveat: avoid feeders with metal parts as the birds’ tiny tongues can get stuck when the metal gets cold.

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