Teachers/Homeschool Families—hummingbird feeders are an inexpensive, low-maintenance way to invite wildlife to your schoolyard as well as your backyard. For student/teacher handouts, please see the end of the article.
On frigid fall and winter mornings my backyard fills with a most unlikely sound—SQUEAKA! SQUEAKA! SQUEAKA! The caps are intentional because if there is such a thing as a bird yelling, this is it! The voice belongs to an Anna’s Hummingbird, demanding that I thaw out the hummer feeder so he can catch a morning snack.
The presence of these tiny birds sparked my interesting in birding back in 2007. Hummingbirds are summer jewels, or so I thought, who fly off to warmer climes during winter. I learned this is not the case with Anna’s Hummingbirds. Their range now extends all the way up into southwestern British Columbia and they are perfectly happy to hang around the entire winter.
In the early part of the 20th century, Anna’s Hummingbirds hung out in Southern California and Northern Baja. Non-native flowering trees planted by gardeners gradually lured the birds north. The fact that they don’t head back to the homeland during winter is due to two other adaptations. First, Anna’s Hummingbirds aren’t strict nectarivores. They also feed on tiny insects, which are active all winter on our side of the Cascade Mountains, except during periods of extreme cold.
In addition, Anna’s Hummingbirds are able to enter a state called torpor, which is similar to hibernation except that the duration is much shorter. Their breathing and heart rate slow. Their normally toasty body temperature (around 107 degrees F) falls as low as 48 degrees F. When the temperature warms, they can become active again in a few minutes. (Want to know more about torpor vs. hibernation? Click here.)
This explains the yelling. Most likely, my backyard visitor has just emerged from a cold, sleepy night and needs some breakfast to recharge his little batteries. Does he need to hang out at my feeder? That’s a trickier question. In general, birds don’t choose their wintering location solely based on human-provided food sources. You aren’t going to mess up a migration pattern just because you provide backyard feeders in the fall or spring.
That said, our West Coast hummingbirds do become accustomed to food being available at specific places, and the presence of feeders during cold snaps may increase the likelihood that “your” little friends will survive until the next thaw. If you’ve been feeding, keep it up, especially during cold snaps. Seattle Audubon Society has ideas for keeping feeders thawed here.
Teacher Resource Sheet–Hummingbirds