By Ben Hill, Communications Volunteer with the Stanley Park Ecology Society
It has been a chilly winter for Vancouverites; great for anyone who enjoys skiing on the North Shore, but not so fun for driving around the city. But while the wintry weather can be an annoyance for us, spare a thought for some of our smallest residents – the hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds in Winter, in Vancouver
Incredible as it seems, the tiny Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), which is barely 10cm long and weighs the same as a Loonie, spends the winter in Stanley Park and other spots around southern BC. So how does this little warrior survive the cold and snow?
In the summer you’ll most often see hummingbirds clustering around the flowers in the Rose Garden to feed on nectar – and many residents in the city put out sugar water feeders to help the birds out. But in the winter the hummers have come up with a different strategy.
Without flowers, nectar isn’t on the menu (unless a feeder is handy), so they turn their attention to the tiny spiders and other insects that live in the forest, and hummingbirds need to eat a huge amount to keep their metabolisms running. One bird can consume its body weight in food each day, which adds up to more than 1000 tiny insects, which explains why they spend so much time foraging.
Although it seems hard to believe given the recent weather, Anna’s hummingbirds actually seem to thrive in the Lower Mainland. Sixty years ago they didn’t range much further north than California, but they have slowly expanded north and you can now see them around Vancouver throughout the year.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure what’s behind this expansion, but one theory is that they may well have benefitted from the growth of human populations on the Pacific coast over the years. Our gardens often have plants that flower later in the year than native species, which can be an important source of food for hummingbirds, and around Stanley Park they do show a particular liking for the roses.
Our Anna’s hummingbird has to survive the cold winters, but in South America the Andean Hillstar has adapted to live in the cold year round. It lives above 3500m in the Andes where it’s so chilly the bird has to go into a kind of hibernation state each night to survive.
For most small birds, though, the alternative to braving the winter is to migrate and that’s what the other hummingbird native to Stanley Park, the Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), does. Like many snowbirds, they head south for the winter to Mexico and the Caribbean. But they don’t get the luxury of hopping on a jet. Their migration, which for hummers from Alaska is more than 3500 miles EACH WAY, is the longest in comparison to its body size of any bird, an incredible 78,470,000 body lengths. They leave us in August and September each year and return in March to breed.
Everything about hummingbirds is pocket sized: their nests are only two inches across, but don’t let that fool you; these are some of the toughest residents of the Park. We’re one of the most northerly places to have hummingbirds year round, so make sure you appreciate them.
Some tips to enjoy watching hummingbirds
- Stay still. Hummingbirds hardly ever stop moving, so watching them can be tricky. It’s easier if you find a spot and let the birds come to you.
- Seek out flowering plants. In summer, hummers love to feed on nectar, so patches of flowers are a great place to see them. In the Park, the Rose Garden and the flowers by the Dining Pavilion are good spots.
- Look for them perching. Although they feed a lot, hummingbirds do have favorite perches. Look for them on thin exposed branches or twigs near feeding areas. You need a sharp eye, though. It’s easy to miss them.
- Bring a camera. Photographing hummingbirds can be hard, but their iridescent feathers can make for some spectacular shots in the summer sunlight.
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