For the Birds Radio Program: Viola Update

Original Air Date: Dec. 3, 2004

As of December 2, Laura’s hummingbird is still there, but acting more cold stressed. Is she genetically unfit?

Duration: 4′48″


Hummingbird Update

As of December second, I am both delighted and saddened to report that Viola, the little Rufous Hummingbird, is still visiting my feeders. The past couple of days have been dreadfully cold and windy, and she’s spent most of the time eating. I put two little window feeders out where I can see her, and she spent pretty much the same amount of time at the sugar water one and the one fortified with ground-up mealworms. Most days since she’s been here, she’s stopped feeding in early or mid-afternoon, but on December first and second she ate until after sunset, so I’m very concerned that she is getting more and more stressed by the cold. One hummingbird expert I wrote to said that birds that are in the wrong place are genetically unfit and it’s better if they die, but there’s no evidence that this bird is the least bit genetically unfit—she’s an adult who clearly has successfully made the migration at least once before. Chances are that this year her first nest was destroyed by one of the fires in the Rufous Hummingbird range out west, or she lost her babies in bad weather, and circumstances led her to renest too late in the season to be able to get enough fat on her body before migration.

Some people have been suggesting that the fact that she’s so dependent on my feeders is proof that I shouldn’t have been leaving feeders out in November. But without my feeders she’d have died weeks ago, hungry as well as cold, and it would have been just as sad, only with no people aware of her passing. One of the best things about being human is the capacity to care about a struggling little bird, and to do what we can to help for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do.

Intuitively and logically, we know that hummingbirds are fragile creatures. But they’re shockingly strong and feisty, with a huge life force belying their tiny size. Viola peeks in the window at me, and doesn’t seem nervous with my watching and photographing her, but that’s probably because she’s so focused on eating. I was gone for a week, and my mother-in-law kept the feeders warm and the sugar water fresh, and Viola managed very well. Now that I’m back, I’ve been keeping track of her appearances. Wednesday she first appeared at 7:17, and returned to my window feeders dozens of times through the daylight hours, making her last visit as it grew dark at 4:06. I wrote down the times for many of her feedings, and which feeder she was choosing. There were snow flurries for much of the day, and then we got a lot of snow on Thursday. That day she first appeared at 7:32 and didn’t leave until 4:21. It seemed so strange to see a hummingbird when the trees were bare and snow was flying, and my whole house was groaning with the cold. I know people who have successfully kept wintering hummingbirds alive in the southern and central states, in winters when only a day or two were below zero and most days reached the 40s. Unfortunately, that’s not the weather pattern in Duluth.

So on Thursday, I left the window to my office open, with one feeder hanging on the inside, and she fed at it a few times, peeking around at the room. After a few quick looks, she finally flew right into my office, and hovered in the center, her body slowly spinning as she looked all around the room in wonder. But she apparently disapproved of the décor because then she turned tail and headed right back out the window. I think she’s not so much a finicky Martha Stewart type as Huck Finn—she just can’t bear the thought of getting “sivilized” regardless of the alternative. I’ll keep offering her the choice of a warmer roosting place, but it doesn’t look likely that she’ll compromise herself and sacrifice her freedom for a warm safe spot. I only wish that, like Huck Finn, this story would find our hero receiving rich rewards, and end with her lighting out for the territory.