For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds in Trouble in a Cold Migration

Original Air Date: May 22, 2007 Rerun Dates: May 18, 2009; May 13, 2008

A sudden heavy snow at a peak of migration put a lot of hummingbirds in trouble. How can we help them?

Duration: 5′10″


I spent this weekend in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, at the Lakeland Discovery Center’s third annual Birding Festival. We had a great time, seeing plenty of cool birds like a pair of Trumpeter Swans doing a cool synchronized swimming dance, a loon on a nest, and dozens of warblers. Spring seemed to be in full force. Then I drove home on Sunday through snow flurries! I guess spring weather is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get.

If that was disconcerting for me, it was downright dangerous for many migrants, who depend on a full supply of insects not just to fuel their traveling but to stay alive. It was cool and cloudy on Monday, and I suddenly I started getting urgent phone calls and emails about hummingbirds. People were finding them dazed and unable to fly in garages, breezeways, and backyards. Under conditions where they can’t maintain their body temperatures, hummingbirds often go into a state called torpor wherein their body temperature drops and they are difficult to rouse.

If you find a hummingbird in such a state in the morning or at mid-day, it’s best to gently warm it in your hands outdoors in hopes that once it warms up and wakens, it won’t have any injuries that keep it from flying off. Put it in a shoebox, trying to get its feet perched on a small twig You might offer it a bit of food. My favorite feeder for emergencies like this is a little $5 tube feeder, with a flat bottom and a single feeding port just above the bottom—it’s easy for a hummingbird on a perch to feed without getting sticky. An eyedropper can work, too. Never set out even a very shallow dish with sugar water near an injured or dazed hummingbird—it’s too easy for the bird to accidentally fall into it and get so sticky it can’t properly clean itself.

Once you put a hummingbird into any kind of box or other container, don’t open it indoors—it’s way too easy for the tiny bird to get trapped indoors. Carry it outdoors to check and see if the bird has recovered. If it tries but can’t fly, or takes off and drops to the ground, bring it to a licensed wildlife rehabber—in Duluth that’s Emily Buchanan.

If you find a hummingbird late in the day, especially as it starts getting dark, things get dicier. It’s important not to release a hummingbird into the darkness of night, so if it starts getting dark before the bird has roused itself, it’s best to let it sleep indoors for the night. Important as it is for it not to get too chilled, it’s equally important not to let it get too hot. And remember—birds are not like baby mammals that can snuggle against their sleeping mother and nurse in the darkness. Baby and adult hummingbirds do not feed after dark at all, so don’t be getting up in the middle of the night to check on it—you’ll be rousing it for nothing. Overall, it’s far better to contact a trained and professional wildlife rehabber that to do it yourself—birds that weigh less than most first class letters are not easy to care for, and even very small mistakes can easily lead to the bird’s death.

With any luck at all, the weather will warm up soon and we’ll be into a normal spring pattern. Meanwhile, the best we can do to minimize the amount of help hummingbirds need is to make sure our feeders are filled with reasonably fresh sugar water. Make it stronger on these cold, wet days—up to 1/3 cup of sugar to one cup of water. And take heart. For every single hummingbird that requires help from people, there are hundreds surviving just perfect on their own. It’s a dangerous world for birds, but this is the very world they’ve evolved to live in, and most of them will survive a few cold May days as most of them survived Hurricane Katrina and a host of other horrible weather conditions during migration. That affirmation that life is not just to be endured but to be celebrated is what spring’s all about.