delightful neighbours indeed
The oldest hummingbird fossil, from a period between 30-35 million years ago, was unearthed in southeastern Germany. It is estimated that 22 million years ago, modern hummingbirds evolved in the Americas.
Today, in a still to be explained evolutionary mystery, hummingbirds exist only in North and South America.
Well over 300 species exist in North and South America and most of these can be found 10 degrees north and south of the equator. About 20 of these species of hummingbirds migrate north into the USA and Canada. A number of species do not migrate and remain in one place all year long.
Here on the Sunshine Coast we are blessed with four species of hummingbirds. Three of these are migratory and fly south in the winter and one remains here all year round.
These tiny birds have extraordinarily fast metabolic rates. In flight their heart rate can be as high as 1200 beats per minute. Flapping at up to 80 beats per second, their wings are practically invisible. To fuel this frenetic activity, they must feed off flowers and ingest more than they weigh in nectar each day. They have the incredible ability to reverse their metabolism; in cold weather or at night they might drop their body temperature and heart rate and enter a state of torpor, often hanging upside down from a branch.
Our migratory hummingbirds live between 3-5 years. They are highly independent and polygamous. Reacting to changes in daily sunlight hours, migratory hummingbirds independently commence their migration. Males leave first, females and juveniles leave a few days or weeks later. Each bird travels alone. Able to fly at speeds as high as 35 mph or 56 km/hr, they fly nap-of-the-earth, just above the treetops or water surfaces, as close to their food sources as possible.
As an example, the distance between Hotel Lake and the top of the Baja Peninsula, Mexico is 2100 km and with time for rest and feeding, hummingbirds can complete this arduous journey in about two weeks. The map below shows the full range of the Rufous hummingbird which migrates the furthest of all.
Migration is driven by the need for food and warm temperatures. A hummingbird's primary food source is flower nectar which contains 20-30% glucose. A hummingbird’s long thin beak can reach deep into flowers for nectar and in doing so serves as an important pollinator because it is capable of visiting between 1000-2000 flowers daily. In addition to pollen they will eat small insects like spiders, beetles, mosquitos and aphids.
When a hummingbird inserts its long thin beak deep inside flowers, they do not suck up the nectar but rather extend their tongue (which is covered with hair) into the nectar where capillary action captures the nectar. The bird then retracts its tongue, efficiently drawing nectar into its mouth and down its throat. It is rare to see a hummingbird open its beak, but they can certainly do so; to catch insects in flight the lower jaw flexes downward and opens slightly.
There is so much information to be found about these beautiful and entertaining birds that we have added a section at the bottom of this page with a few sources so that you can continue to learn more if you wish.
Who are our hummingbird neighbours? The four species we can expect to see around Hotel Lake are Rufous, Black-Chinned, Calliope and Anna’s. As is the case with most birds both male and female have distinct colours and characteristics.
The Rufous Hummingbird is well known for exhibiting aggressive behaviour and will readily attack other hummingbirds. Rufous migrate north and south annually (as far as Alaska to Mexico, 3,900 miles or 6,275 km). Rufous winters in Mexico and proceeds northwards up the Pacific coast approximately synchronized with the flowering of salmonberry and red flowering currant. They feed on nectar from these flowers and consume aphids from leaves and hunt airborne flies, gnats and midges.
Males are small compared to other hummingbirds. They generally have bright copper-orange backs while some have green backs and sides of their belly. Their throats are reddish-orange iridescent, white breasted and an ear patch behind the eye.
Females have copper coloured sides, a green crown, neck and back, white breast and occasionally an orange or red spot on the throat
The Black-Chinned Hummingbird is highly adaptable and will settle in mountain and alpine meadows, canyons with thickets, orchards, urban areas, and recently disturbed areas. In winter, they migrate to the west coasts of Mexico. Migrating north they breed in southern British Columbia during the summer. When they fly nearby, you will hear their wings make a distinctive hum which sounds much like a bee. They also make sounds that are high pitched chirps and clicks
Males have a metallic green body, white breast and greenish flanks. The head appears black. Crown is dark green, and lower throat is iridescent violet. A white spot is behind the eyes.
Females have a a green back, white breast and greenish-grey cap on their heads and a dark-spotted grey throat and white spot behind the eyes.
The Calliope Hummingbird annually migrates south along the Rocky Mountains to Mexico while their northbound route is along the Pacific Coast. They hunt small insects by “hawking”, sitting and waiting on a perch for an insect to approach, then flying out and intercepting it. Males use a daring aerobatic manoeuvre to attract females by diving straight down at the ground and at the last moment pulling up vertically and then doing it all over again. Calliopes prefer conifer trees for nesting and use organic materials such as lichen, bark, and moss as camouflage.
Males have long, magenta throat feathers streaking down their neck. Top and sides of head are metallic green and the breast is white.
Females have white throat with small black dots. Head and back are metallic green, breast is buff.
The Anna’s Hummingbird is a new species to BC and because it does not migrate south in the winter…..it deserves a more fulsome introduction. Originally found only in California during 1930-1940s, the species, although not migratory, began to expand north up the coast and into Washington State. Anna's appeared in West Vancouver in 1959 but was otherwise rarely sighted in BC during the ‘60s. Then in the 70s Anna’s continued their northward expansion, this time, up the Sunshine Coast. Although the population grew slowly in the 80s and 90s, these tiny newcomers are settling in nicely as the 2009 map depicts below. Today at Hotel Lake, if you see a hummingbird in the winter it is almost certainly an Anna’s and you are probably seeing it because you or someone else has a nice clean feeder set out full of correctly mixed nectar. Anna’s are very adaptable and eat small bugs, midges and leafhoppers. Even insects caught in spiderwebs are fair game. They also eat sugary sap running from trees. While Anna’s is the only hummingbird that does not migrate south, they are known to relocate to higher elevations in summer and lower in winter. Best of all they live 8.5 years on average, so you can really get to know them.
Anna's are highly responsive to hummingbird feeders because these provide a valuable supplement to help them get through our cold and wet winters. It is important to understand that Anna’s who discover a nectar-feeder will stick around and grow to depend on it. If you are at home all winter and you are able to service the feeder all winter then by all means do so.
Anna’s breed very early in the spring and may lay eggs as early as late February. Their courtships are similar to some other hummingbirds; Anna’s males will hover before a female, then climb to over 100 feet and diving vertically emit a loud squeak as he passes the female before pulling out of the dive and then do it all over again as required.
Males have iridescent pinkish-red heads. Underparts are a mix between grey and green. Tail and back are dark green. A broken white eye-ring is often displayed.
Females: Duller than the males, with a green cap and body. Their tail has a white tip. Many birds have a patch of metallic purple or red on their throat.
While hummingbird feeders are certainly an excellent way to attract these tiny birds and supplement their diets, the introduction of natural habitat with native trees, shrubs and flowers is even better during the summer. By planting flowering species in your garden that are not invasive and which are known to attract hummingbirds you will provide a more natural environment with lots of nectar.
To find out more just click on the "Grow Me Instead" link below to visit a delightfully illustrated brochure which will identify many plants that will do the trick. As an added bonus you will see BC’s most unwanted horticultural (invasive species) and how to replace them.
Hummingbirds supplement their diet with insects for protein but flower nectar is the main food intake. Flower nectar is water with between 20 and 30 percent simple carbohydrates or sucrose along with trace amounts of protein and electrolytes.
Hummingbirds have very high blood sugar; a human would be in a diabetic coma if they had the blood sugar of a hummingbird that has fasted. Interestingly these birds have none of the eye, liver, kidney or other problems associated with diabetes. So how do hummingbirds deal with all the sugar as well as all the water they consume? Scientists are still working on these questions and one can only hope that along that path we will also find new approaches to diabetes in humans. In the meantime, careful respect for our hummingbirds starts with the understanding that their tiny highly-adapted metabolisms, livers, and kidneys have limits that must not be exceded so as to avoid inflicting sickness or death.
Obviously the use of feeders must be taken seriously. The use of commercial feeder-nectar-mixes is not recommended as they can contain dyes, preservatives and other additives which, even in tiny amounts, may cause harm. There are many do-it-yourself white sugar and water recipes. White sugar is recommended because it is closest to the sugars hummingbirds encounter in nature, other types of sugars or recipes could make them sick and die.
The recipe below is based on that of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute with additional points taken in part from the SPCA Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre.
1 part white sugar with 4 parts water (for example, 1 cup of sugar with 4 cups of boiled water) until the sugar is dissolved.
Never add more sugar than the 1:4 ratio recommended as this may cause sickness or death.
Allow mixture to cool, then fill your hummingbird feeders with nectar and place outside out of the sun.
Extra sugar water can be stored in a refrigerator.
Clean feeders often with a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water (do not use bleach) to remove and prevent harmful bacteria, mold or fungus. Infections can cause a hummingbird’s tongue to swell, often resulting in death.
If you commit to winter feeding, you must commit fully. Non-migratory Anna’s hummingbirds may come to rely on this food source and will suffer if it is interrupted in the middle of winter. Don’t put hummingbird feeders out if you’re not prepared to clean and maintain them.
If you’re not ready for this serious commitment, bring your nectar feeders in starting in September, before the fall migration. Anna’s hummingbirds are smart and adaptable, and this will give them time to find another food source before winter hits.
Even in winter, do not increase the ratio of sugar to water above 1:4. Adding more sugar may help prevent freezing, but it’s not healthy for hummingbirds.
Ensure the nectar never freezes. In harsh temperatures, you may need to bring your feeder in at night to prevent freezing; this won’t disrupt the hummingbirds if the feeder is put back out first thing in the morning. You might want to keep two feeders handy so you can alternate between them. Have a friend or neighbour check your feeder if you’re away.
If you see a hummingbird hanging upside down, motionless, from a feeder or a tree branch, it is unlikely to be dead but rather in a state of torpor, which we described earlier, so just leave it alone; it will wake up soon enough.
Hummingbirds were zipping around on Earth millions of years before humans arrived and today they live exclusively in North and South America. Living here on Canada's west coast, we can only marvel at their tenacity and beauty and smile at their antics. Its a privilege to live here and enjoy their company and to try to help them thrive as our neighbours.
Here is a link to eBird, a remarkable birdwatchers web service. This link will take you to the Sunshine Coast section of the site and there you will find an exceptionally well designed layout so that you can become aware of the many birds and their sightings on the coast. Best of all you can see the names of the local birdwatching-enthusiasts who’s bird-sightings are contributing to the growing data base. https://ebird.org/region/CA-BC-SC. You can even join-up yourself.
Other sites of interest:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World
E-Flora Electronic Atlas of the Flora of BC: https://ibis.geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/eflora/NatureNotesHummingbird.html