It’s probably just the Minnesotan in me, but as the temperature drops I’ve found myself worrying about the local hummingbirds. Western Washington is blessed with two species of hummingbirds: Anna’s and Rufous. While Rufous migrates south for the winter, Anna’s sticks around for the much-adored Pacific Northwest winters.
I spoke with Seattle Audubon Society members to find out how Anna’s hummingbirds survive winter and what non-migratory humans in the PNW can do to help them. Their answers not only benefit the birds, but contribute to an overall Earth-friendly lifestyle.
Homemade hummingbird nectar
Anna’s hummingbirds are well-suited for our climate, but have lost a good deal of habitat and food sources to human development in Western Washington. Melissa Melloy, assistant manager at the Seattle Audubon’s Nature Shop, said hummingbirds mostly eat nectar and occasionally bugs. They are very territorial by nature, and will chase away competitors from a food source they’ve claimed.
Putting out a feeder with homemade nectar creates another food source for hummingbirds. Melloy said the ideal nectar is made from “plain old, bottom shelf white granulated sugar.” This sugar – opposed to sugar-in-the-raw or sugar substitutes – makes a nectar that is closest to what they would find in nature.
Seattle Audubon Society suggests one part sugar to four parts water as the ideal ratio. Simply boil the water, stir in the sugar until it dissolves, and let the solution cool. Bird lovers should avoid buying ready-made nectar solutions at stores because they often contain preservatives and dyes.
“We don’t sell any kind of nectar solution because you just end up paying for packaging, and store bought often has food coloring,” Melloy said. “Hummingbirds just can’t process those chemicals.”
The Nature Shop sells several types of feeders, all less than $30, and suggests cleaning them with hot, soapy water at least weekly. A volunteer at the Nature Shop also said it’s important to bring feeders in during the coldest winter nights, as hummingbirds have been known to freeze to feeders.
Native, winter-blooming plants
In addition to feeders, Mellow suggest planting native and winter-blooming plants to provide food and habitat. Mahonia aquifolium and Mahonia nervosa (both known commonly as Oregon Grape) are native shrubs that provide habitat and winter food for hummingbirds. Other winter blooming plants, according to Valerie Easton in the Seattle Times, include sasanqua camellias, hellebores, Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) and Ribes sanguineum (flower currant).
These plants also provide habitat for many species of birds and the bugs they rely on for food. Practicing natural lawn care and avoiding pesticides is crucial to building a bird-friendly habitat.
“It’s amazing the transformation that comes even when you add one thing,” Mellow said. “At the shop, we added a native garden a few years ago and we have more native species than anywhere I’ve seen in Seattle.”
How do they do it?
Western Washington doesn’t get nearly as cold as other parts of the country, but even my Minnesotan blood gets chilled during the winter. So how do hummingbirds do it without long johns, hot coffee and seat warmers?
Melloy said the key is hummingbirds’ ability to enter a semi-hibernative state called torpor. While in torpor, their metabolism, body temperature and heart rate dramatically decrease, saving up to 60% of their energy. They’ve been known to hang upside-down like bats during this state.
Once they exit the state, they immediately search for food and eat up to 25% of their daily intake. That’s where your hummingbird feeder comes in handy.
If you see a hummingbird that looks dead, its quite possible that it’s in torpor. It’s recommended the bird be left alone.
Helping hummingbirds is Earth-friendly
Practicing natural lawn care and adding native plants isn’t just bird-friendly, bee-friendly or salmon-friendly – all of them at once. These species thrived before humans developed the land into sod and concrete covered plots. Anything effort to return the ecosystem toward its prior state is an Earth-friendly choice!
Further, profits at The Nature Shop go to funding Seattle Audubon Society’s activities and programs, which include classes, neighborhood bird walks, birding trips and more. In addition to feeders, the shop sells feed, birding accessories, bird baths, nesting supplies, books and games.