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Hummingbirds can starve in the cold, says Island wildlife centre

MARS in Merville has had more than a dozen birds brought in already
An Anna’s hummingbird in care. (file photo, Wild ARC)

Hummingbirds need food more than ever during the cold weather.

However, that’s the time people’s backyard feeders freeze up. The result is it can leave the birds in a precarious position, facing potentially deadly consequences.

During the cold snap in late December, Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) Wildlife Rescue Centre in Merville has already had many reports of hummingbirds in distress.

“We’re getting a lot of calls,” says animal caregiver Jo Stiles.

There are two types of hummingbirds in this area: the rufous, which typically migrate, and Anna’s, many of which stay here year-round and can be vulnerable in sub-zero temperatures and need the nectar more than ever.

“They’re expending so much energy keeping warm,” Stiles says.

As of Dec. 30, MARS had 14 birds brought in, but many people have contacted the organization about the birds and their safety.

“We probably had triple that in calls,” she said.

The problem is there are fewer food sources around, and when feeders freeze up, birds that have become acclimatized to coming to a particular feeder find themselves cut off. When they cannot feed, they can become lethargic, with some even falling off branches. Stiles says at this point, the birds are in a state of torpor, and MARS recommends talking the bird inside, putting it in a box to provide some warmth, keeping them away from any disturbances or animals inside the house and, importantly, getting the nectar thawed, or even warm if possible, so the birds can process it more quickly.

“Give them a quiet, warmer place,” she says.

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If the bird responds after 15 to 30 minutes, let it back outside, unless it is late in the day or early evening, in which case, people should wait until morning before releasing the bird. However, if the bird does not respond, people can call MARS to help.

There are some other things to keep in mind, Stiles says, to help make sure hummingbirds have access to safe nectar. People can keep an extra feeder to rotate the nectar on a regular basis. They should make sure the feeder is cleaned regularly.

“If you have an extra feeder, then you can switch them out,” Stiles says.

They can bring in a feeder to thaw out, especially at night, when temperatures are freezing. Some people, she says, even wrap their feeders in bubble wrap or old wool socks to help keep the feeder a little warmer. Another thing to check is that the spigots on the feeders are free of ice, so that the birds can drink freely.

While some people suggest increasing the ratio of sugar to water during cold weather, Stiles recommends people stick to the standard ratio of one part white sugar — but never sweeteners like brown sugar, honey or molasses — to four parts water, then allow the mixture to cool. (The white sugar is closest to the nectar they would drink naturally.)

“We know that one’s safe,” she says. “We know that’s not going to hurt them.”

If the animal is in a more distressed state and needs intervention from MARS, Stiles adds they have special foods with more nutrients for the birds.

MARS is located at 1331 Williams Beach Rd. in Merville. The office number is 250-337-2021.

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