During our recent snowstorm, someone sent me a photo of an iridescent green-and-red hummingbird sitting forlornly at a frozen hummingbird feeder.
Images like this launched a barrage of questions that began at my early morning exercise class and continued through our snowy days. Why are the hummers still here? Should I feed them, or does that make them dependent on us humans?
All good questions, since the idea of tiny hummingbirds trying to find flowers in snow can unsettle us.
Let me back up and explain why these birds are here in winter. Many of you know that we have two species of hummers on Whidbey.
The common, summertime Rufous Hummingbird is a migrant that spends its summer with us and retreats back down south in the fall, far away from the ice and snow.
It’s a completely different species, the Anna’s Hummingbird, which stays here year round. These birds do not migrate. They never have and likely never will.
And nothing that we humans do will change that.
These wintering Anna’s will be very grateful for a feeder full of sugar water to give them energy, especially in the cold weather.
One question kept popping up: How do you keep a hummingbird feeder thawed in 20-degree weather? I use two feeders, which I swap back and forth, with one outside feeding the birds and the other inside thawing out.
My friend Dave came up with an ingenious idea. Dave really is a rocket scientist, but you don’t have to be one to repeat what he did.
He wrapped a heat wire — the kind used to protect pipes from freezing — around the feeder and plugged it in with an extension cord.
The red wire adds a festive decoration to the feeder, but I’m not sure the birds appreciate his attention to design detail.
According to Dave, at first the birds were shy about coming in for a drink, but soon were feeding as frequently as they did before his heating system was installed.
The second most common topic for questions during the snowstorm followed this line: Why are there so many birds out? Where did they come from?
Several species of birds, including the Dark-eyed Junco and the Varied Thrush, are forced down to sea level during heavy snow, which partly explains the plethora of birds.
Also, many birds flock in search of food during the winter, so we are more apt to notice them.
These winter flocks are often made up of what I call “chick-lets,” Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Constantly on the lookout for food, when those chick-lets find a snow-free seed or suet feeder, they will return again and again.
Another explanation for the increase in bird life may be that we are drawn to look outside during the snow and therefore we are more aware of the birds, and more sympathetic of their survival during cold times. Even the dull sparrows, juncos and towhees take on extra contrast and color with a stark white backdrop.
For birds, as well as for our holiday gift recipients, we might consider our buying habits. Buying locally produced items from local business cuts down on transportation emissions and supports our local business friends.
One win-win gift in that regard that also will answer many of your hummingbird questions is the remarkable new picture book called “The Amazing Hummingbird Story of Red Rufous” by local artist and writer, Craig and Joy Johnson.
You may already own one of their popular books of bird photos.
This new book, which tells the story of our Rufous Hummingbirds, is chock full of Craig’s delicious watercolor paintings.
“Red Rufous” is available at the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Clinton and all our local bookstores.
We’re likely in for more cold and snow, so stock up on seed and suet, keep those hummer feeders thawed and take time during the holidays to look outside at our feathered friends.
Their presence in our lives is one of nature’s most precious gifts. It’s a free gift, no batteries required, and one that lasts all year long.
Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” For more bird information and to contact Frances, visit her web site at firstname.lastname@example.org.