For the Birds Radio Program: Farewell, Viola

Original Air Date: Dec. 6, 2004

How did the saga of Viola the November Hummingbird end?

Duration: 4′29″


Farewell to Viola

On November 16, while I was working at my computer, I suddenly became aware of a familiar sound, but one I simply did not expect to hear in November, the beating of a hummingbird’s wings. I looked out my back window to see a hummingbird at the feeder I’d left out just in case such a straggler might appear one fine day. This wasn’t a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, though it was just as small—it had very rusty sides, and several other plumage clues that indicated it belonged to the genus Selasphorus. I named her Viola.

As thrilling as it’s been having a hummingbird at my feeder in November, it was a little scary wondering if she’d survive when winter gets really cold up here. December 2, it got down to at least 6 degrees before I went to bed, and as I listened to my house creaking and groaning with cold, I kept wondering how that tiny bird could survive such conditions. But the next morning, there she was at my feeder, bright eyed as usual.

My hope from the start was that she’d spend a few days here, and then move on. Hummingbirds migrate by day, stopping here and there when they notice a likely meal. I knew if she came through an afternoon and then didn’t appear the next morning, that she’d have died during the night. So the best case scenario would be that one day she’d show up for a big breakfast and then disappear at midmorning. And that is exactly what happened on December 3. Last Friday was the perfect day for her to leave, because the temperature in Duluth got over freezing, and there were mild weather conditions, predicted to last for a few days, south and east of here. Hummingbirds can fly at sustained speeds of 25 miles per hour, and fly during daylight hours when they can feed along the way. If is quite possible that she made it to Chicago or farther by the end of the weekend.

How likely is it that she will survive the winter? It turns out that Rufous Hummingbirds wintering in the eastern United States and even Canada are not that uncommon. I found an internet site with an animated map showing when and where over 200 Rufous Hummingbirds have been wintering in the east this year alone (it’s linked on my website), and there are several birds in the top tier of states–my little Viola is so far the northernmost one, but there’s been one hanging around in Niagara Falls, one in Michigan, and a few in Indiana and Ohio. Hummingbird bander Allen Chartier, who has trapped and banded thousands of hummingbirds and keeps close track of wintering ones, has had returns of banded birds during subsequent winters in very cold areas as far north as northern Ohio, so apparently they are quite capable of figuring out how to eek out a living in extreme weather and apparently do just fine. And there just aren’t many records of Rufous Hummingbirds dying from cold—when temperatures get very low, the go into a state of “torpor,” which is similar to hibernation but on a daily rather than seasonal schedule. I boosted Viola’s food, making it a third of a cup of sugar to one cup of water, and put that in a blender with a few mealworms to provide her with at least some insect fats and protein. But I’ll never know if that was enough to sustain her as she moved onward with her migration. All I can do is hope, and “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Every bird dies. But I’m relieved and happy that Viola’s final day on the planet was not among the 18 that she spent with me, and that my feeders may quite possibly have put her into good enough condition to allow her to safely travel to a more balmy wintering ground.