Winter Hummingbird

kateat wildlife center

Kate at her busy post managing the Wildlife Center’s front desk.

The story that grabbed my heart this year is of a critter that never entered our doors.

JANUARY 2013

Last winter I got a call from a woman named Becky in far southwest Virginia who wanted to know what she could do to keep her female hummingbird warm during the anticipated cold snap that was coming in February.

WHAT??!!!

Becky explained to me that this bird, a somewhat larger-than-usual female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, had not migrated in the fall when all her cohorts had left. And, somehow, the hummingbird was surviving through the cold January nights, albeit with the help Becky was providing by continuing to offer the nectar feeder around the clock every day. When a Ruby-throated Hummingbird overwinters here it usually is because it is ill, injured, or a “genetically inferior” individual, and it would be likely to die in migration if it tried to go.

Each day, Becky changed the nectar mix to make sure the feeding holes didn’t ice over. She went out periodically and brushed snow off the perch. The bird roosted at night in a dense holly which afforded some protection from the snow and wind. That was all the bird had as protection. Becky was investing a huge amount of time and energy into providing the only sustenance this bird could have found anywhere in the area. Without her dedicated attention, it seems surely the bird would have frozen or died of hypoglycemia.

Becky asked whether she should increase the ratio of sugar to water to give more calories. We cautioned her against this, and instead offered that if she wanted to do something more, she could buy a professional quality hummingbird feed that would replace some of the proteins and minerals that the bird would have normally gotten from eating insects; this product is more complete than the simple carbs of sugar water. Unfortunately, that food would cost her about $100 to order online. She said she was going to consider it. I hung up with a feeling of sadness knowing that snows and colder temperatures—into the teens or lower—were forecasted.

JUNE 2013

Becky’s committed effort had touched my heart. I kept her phone number, arguing with myself about whether or not I wanted to hear the outcome of her winter’s effort. In June, I nervously dialed the phone to check up on the outcome. Astounded, I learned that the female hummingbird had survived the winter and rejoined with the other half dozen or so ruby-throats that had returned in the spring! Becky had decided to name this bird “Mira” for miracle, and had earned the right to do so, I thought.

NOVEMBER 2013

Writing up this story, I decided to call Becky one last time to clarify some details. She informed me that a late season hummingbird was at her house — again – after the others had left for the season. It is roosting in the same holly bush and is slightly larger than most other hummingbirds of summer were. She suspects it is “Mira.” Ruby-throated Hummingbirds usually leave Virginia by mid-October to winter in Mexico and Central America.

Again, there is nothing to indicate why the bird didn’t leave with the others a month ago—no known injury or disability. This year, Becky is planning to take down her last feeder to encourage “Mira” to leave before it is too late again this year. Leaving feeders up does not cause birds to delay migration. It is the change in day length that triggers the migration instinct in birds, not availability of food. Still, maybe it will encourage her…

Could this be Mira?

Could this be Mira? photo of Rufous Hummingbird by Helena Reynolds/Project FeederWatch

There is another additional possibility. Sometimes, hummingbirds that overwinter in the east may not be our native ruby-throated hummingbird species, but instead the slightly larger, more cold-tolerant vagrant species Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) which have been seen with increasing frequency in the eastern USA. Could this be her Mira?

I don’t know if I’ll have the heart to check in with Becky again or not. But I have saved her phone number just in case.

–Kate Guenther, Virginia Master Naturalist and Wildlife Center of Virginia Front Desk Coordinator | Reprinted here with her permission. Originally published in the Wildlife Center of Virginia blog on December 29, 2013.

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