A tithe for nature – How can we help hummingbirds this fall and throughout the coming year?

Helping Hummingbirds - Conservation Action Series

A series about what we can do individually and locally to help hummingbirds

A tithe for nature – How can we help hummingbirds this fall and throughout the coming year?

As the last summer fruit is ripening, autumn colours herald the changing of the season. It is time for final harvests and tidy up from summer, but what hummingbirds are still here and how can we help them?

Although the neotropical migrants have left, fall brings the concerted return of Anna’s Hummingbirds to our feeders all along the south coast of BC. They are establishing territories in preparation for breeding, which begins in December. This timing may sound a bit surprising, but it reflects the rapid range expansion of Anna’s Hummingbirds. Prior to 1940, they were found predominantly in Baja and California and winter is an excellent time to breed there.

Male Anna's Hummingbird Stretching _ John Moran
Male Anna's Hummingbird stretching
Photo credit: Jon Moran

So how did they end up breeding here during the winter? Being tolerant of humans, Anna’s Hummingbirds flourished with urban expansion – finding the resources they needed around our homes, in our gardens, and with the popularization of supplemental feeding. They first arrived on Vancouver Island in the early 1960s, but numbers remained low until the 1980s. Since then, the population has expanded dramatically and they are now common in urban areas. Christmas Bird Counts have shown their wintering range to extend as far north as Alaska and as far east as Newfoundland!

What is most striking is how quickly these birds established themselves once the resources they need became available. This change is something we can see with our own eyes and it shows the value of providing suitable habitat. The key to helping hummingbird species that are struggling, like the Rufous Hummingbird, which is a ‘tipping point’ species (i.e., has lost two thirds of its population in the last 50 years and is on track to lose another 50% in the next 50 years), is restoring vital resources. The current Anna’s expansion gives us hope that our conservation actions can alter their trajectory toward growth.

Throughout the Conservation Action Series, we have discussed ways to increase food, shelter and nesting resources. Perhaps we might think about these resources as a tithe to nature. How can we do this? Since nature does not thrive in tidy spaces, perhaps we could adopt a little messiness. We might leave a few pieces of fruit hanging on the tree. For instance, a hole pecked in an apple can collect rain and provide a sugary-rich bowl for a hummingbird to drink.

apple drinking
Drinking sugary water from a hole in an apple
Video credit: Sara Hiebert

Like most birds, hummingbirds also prefer a naturally cluttered environment. By resisting the impulse to clean off every little dead spur on shrubs and trees, we are providing important habitat features. Branches and twigs provide places to nest and rest unobserved. The disorder of shrubbery is particularly important for Anna’s nests, as these are often found lower down and closer to our dwellings than the nests of other hummingbird species.

Dead twigs make a superb hummingbird perch. These provide vital vantage points for surveying the landscape. Hummingbirds will also perch on old flower stalks and leaving flowers to go to seed provides valuable food for seed eaters.

Anna's Hummingbird on a Dead Twig _ Jon Moran
Anna's Hummingbird on a dead twig
Photo credit: Jon Moran

Since Anna’s Hummingbirds will soon be breeding, we can also make sure they have nesting materials. Nests are made by weaving spider’s webs through insulating fluff and then decorating with moss and lichen. Instead of taking a broom to spider’s webs, consider leaving a few. The same might be said for any fluff, perhaps brush it off to a side area of the garden rather than removing it entirely.

Food reserves are also vital for a thriving bird population. With hummingbirds this means sugar and insects. While growing, hummingbird chicks are fed soft-bodied insects. By encouraging native plants that support greater insect diversity and avoiding pesticides that kill insects, there will be ample protein available.

Sugar is needed for the Anna’s hummingbirds to power their way through the coming winter. There are plants that flower and provide nectar right through winter. If you are making nectar for feeders, use 1:4 white sugar to water. In colder weather, keep nectar fluid by careful feeder placement (e.g., sheltered under overhangs) and by wrapping them in insulating material or providing mild warming. Remember to clean feeders frequently using a mild detergent.

We can help hummingbirds by making sure they have the resources they need to thrive. This requires sharing our landscape respectfully with Nature, leaving a tithe, if you will. Hummingbirds are environmental sentinels. They will respond to actions taken in our own back yards, parks, agricultural areas and wildlands. Our conservation actions represent meaningful resistance to the changes we see around us and when we watch hummingbirds, we can take joy in knowing that our efforts are helping them to succeed.

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