Hummingbirds in B.C. fight for life as canaries in a cold snap

Anna’s hummingbirds vie for their turn in a trough filled with sugary water kept warm in troubled lighting in Malahat, BC, on December 27, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO / The balloon and the mail

Earlier this winter, Shelley Streich Oleksuik was enchanted by the beauty, color and sweetness of the hummingbird that took up residence on her deck. “There’s something about hummingbirds that pulls at the heart,” says the 59-year-old Hope, BC resident.

Mrs. Oleksuik greeted the delicate little bird every morning at 6:45 am while hanging up his feeder. She would talk to him all day, and sometimes she would look up and see him hanging around the window, watching her. When he read that Anna’s hummingbirds “persevere” through the winter in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, he named him Percival (Percy for short).

And when temperatures plummeted to record levels, tooth chattering lows last week, Oleksuik rigged a contraption to keep Percy’s feeder liquid, using a work light, aluminum foil and a cookie sheet.

Monday, she saw Percy struggling to move in the cold of -20 C: “It broke my heart. I gently picked it up and put it in a safe and secure place. “When Percy woke up, he flew away.” That was the last time I saw him, “he says.

Extreme weather puts British Columbia residents on an ’emotional roller coaster’

Mrs. Oleksuik still gets up early to get the nectar and keeps an informal vigil for her iridescent friend: “I sit and read and look up at her favorite perch, looking for my little man, my Percy. It amazes me how sad I am, how devastated I am ”.

She is not the only hummingbird on the Lower Continent who is heartbroken. A legion of them have waged a crusade to ensure that Anna’s resident hummingbirds do not perish in the Arctic drain that is gripping the region. Online, they exchange tips on the best heating lights and heating pads, and share photos of their feeders wrapped in wool socks and tea cozies.

Allan Wooley, a Chilliwack school janitor, MacGy discovered a contraption with a Rubbermaid bag, a halogen light, and Plexiglass. “My wife calls them my other children,” he says. “I do my best to try to keep them warm.”

At dawn, the birds are “chattering in the trees, waiting for their warming station,” adds Wooley. One will sit inside the bag for 20 minutes, basking in the light.

Small, vulnerable birds are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment and have been struggling to cope with the record low temperatures that cover BC, says Jackie McQuillan, who works with Burnaby’s Wildlife Rescue. The rescue center has admitted 53 hummers in the past week, the largest influx in its 42-year history. People should be diligent at this point and keep a close eye on their feeders, she says. “The birds depend on them.”

Mrs. McQuillan says the Annas are coming in with injuries including frostbite and damage to their tongues and feet, which have been frozen in the feeders. Some suffer from hunger and hypothermia. “We had to build houses very quickly and ask for additional food and supplies because of the extraordinary number of people in care at the moment.”

Anna’s reddish-pink feathers offer little insulation. Birds, whose hearts beat 1,200 times per minute and whose wings move so fast they appear blurry to the human eye, need to constantly feed to fuel their floating life.

When no nectar or insects are available, or the temperature plummets, they go into sleep-like “lethargy,” says Alison Moran of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory on Vancouver Island. Lethargy allows them to go out physiologically and is “key” to their survival in winter.

Some will make it, some won’t, says Dr. Moran. “Misadventure” is “natural selection”, which allows the species to survive. Lethargy, McQuillan notes, is one of the ways the Annas have evolved to winter in BC.

Hummers are not the only creatures that suffer in the province. Wildlife Rescue says it has never cared for as many animals as it did last year. First, it was the heat dome, then the fires, and now this brutal cold snap. All combined has produced “the perfect storm for wildlife,” according to McQuillan.

And while it’s often the largest beasts that grab our attention, tiny but magnificent hummingbirds are a prime example of a species threatened by climate change. They are, says writer Jon Dunn, “the most beautiful canary in the coal mine.”

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