The recent cold snap and heavy snowfall are taking their toll on local birdlife, particularly Anna’s hummingbirds. For people who feed birds, there are steps that should be taken to help ensure the creatures’ continued well-being, says Wildlife Rescue’s Jackie McQuillan. (Ritu Khanna contributed photo)

The recent cold snap and heavy snowfall are taking their toll on local birdlife, particularly Anna’s hummingbirds. For people who feed birds, there are steps that should be taken to help ensure the creatures’ continued well-being, says Wildlife Rescue’s Jackie McQuillan. (Ritu Khanna contributed photo)

Frigid temperatures taking heavy toll on Anna’s hummingbirds

Wildlife centre has taken in 52 injured or freezing birds since Dec. 22, compared to 4 last year

The recent severe cold snap and heavy snowfalls blanketing the Lower Mainland have left some of the region’s tiniest feathered creatures in need of a helping hand.

And their human neighbours on the Semiahmoo Peninsula have been stepping up in droves to answer the call.

Cathy Steele of Wild Birds Unlimited in South Surrey said the phone line at her store has been “so, so very busy” with calls from people wanting to know what they can do to help the hummingbird population.

The interest is heartening, she said, but the demand has also meant a complete depletion of certain supplies.

“I’m totally out of hummingbird feeders and heaters,” Steele said Tuesday, adding she’s been advised by her supplier that no more heaters will be available until February.

A supply of heaters that came in on Dec. 29 was sold out within two days. She was hoping to receive more of the feeders on Wednesday (Jan. 5).

“The interest has been huge, which is really good.”

With the mercury at times plunging into negative double digits overnight and hovering below freezing during the day – through the two-week holiday stretch, in particular – the early winter freeze has been particularly hard on the tiny nectar-feeders.

Jackie McQuillan, support centre lead at Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C., said her Burnaby-based centre took in 52 Anna’s hummingbirds between Dec. 22 and 30, compared to just four during the same period in 2020.

“When we have a dusting of snow and the temperatures hovering around the freezing point we see an uptake in calls and patients coming to our facility, but nothing like we have experienced with these Arctic temperatures,” McQuillan told Peace Arch News by email last Thursday (Dec. 30).

Hummingbirds and sapsuckers – a type of woodpecker – are arriving at the rescue centre with frostbite, dehydration and damage from getting stuck to frozen metal feeders and other objects, she said.

“The weather has left them weakened, often on the ground in deep snowbanks, and fighting over feeders as they desperately seek out food.”

While the cold weather is certainly to blame, it appears to be the dramatic variations from normal that the animals find so challenging, McQuillan noted.

“We saw a similar crisis for the wildlife during the heat dome event this summer.”

Steele said the winter population of Anna’s hummingbirds is not a new phenomenon, however, “the numbers of them are huge this past couple of years.”

With feeders turning to ice within an hour in below-zero temperatures, many people have been getting creative in their efforts to keep that food supply accessible to the birds, “from insulating it, to getting a trouble light over top of it – different things like that,” Steele said.

People who have hummingbird feeders should be diligent about checking them regularly to ensure they are not frozen, McQuillan noted.

“The portals to the feeder where the birds insert their tongues freeze very quickly. We have had multiple instances of hummingbirds getting their tongues stuck to icy feeders and suffering frostbite as a result.”

Steele added that the solution – four parts water, one part sugar – should also be changed weekly, as otherwise it can ferment.

Another step bird lovers can take – one that McQuillan said is ultimately the best solution – is to provide native trees and plants in their yards so the food sources many species of birds need are naturally available to them.

When it comes to feeding, she recommends consulting with personnel at a local wild-bird store, adding that any species of bird will gravitate towards suet feeders and other higher-fat food sources for extra energy during exceptionally cold weather.

Meanwhile, anyone who finds a wild bird down on the ground, or that appears to be in distress from the cold, or for any other reason, should pick it up gently using a towel, and place it into a ventilated and covered box. The box should be placed in a warm, quiet area, McQuillan advised. Contact the centre for further instructions at 604-526-7275 or wildlife@wildliferescue.ca

•••

With all the publicity surrounding the plight of hummingbirds during the cold snap, McQuillan offered some tips for people who are new to feeding the tiny feathered creatures or hoping to start. It is, she notes, a serious commitment.

Avid hummingbird feeders will tell you that their birds let them know when their feeders are empty! Hummingbirds are very territorial, so if a feeder empties or becomes frozen it increases pressure on other feeders as more birds compete for food there. They will sometimes injure each other as a result which can even further increase the number of animals we see brought in for care.

• Feeders should be prepared with a 1:4 sugar to water ratio. The solution should not just be topped up but changed every four to five days. The feeder must be washed before it is refilled to prevent bacteria and mold growth.

• Feeder cleaning and maintenance is also essential for seed-eating birds. This is the time of year when we start seeing salmonella outbreaks in songbirds that congregate at seed feeders, such as Pine Siskins. For this reason, if people have seed feeders at their homes we recommend a strict cleaning regime:

• Clean feeders with a 10 per cent bleach solution (9-parts water to 1-part bleach) at least once a week, followed by careful rinsing and complete drying. Refill with fresh birdseed before reuse.

• Clean the ground below feeders of fecal matter and uneaten birdseed daily.

• If you see sick birds in your yard remove the feeder to prevent spread of disease.

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A hummingbird recovers after being found near-frozen during the holiday cold snap. (Julie Martin photo)

A hummingbird recovers after being found near-frozen during the holiday cold snap. (Julie Martin photo)