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How Hummingbirds Survive Winter

As the days get shorter and cooler, I’ve been thinking about whether or not it’s time to remove the hummingbird feeder. As for timing, I know some hummingbirds start migrating as early as mid-July and others wait until August or September. But I wonder if these tiny, energetic birds are all gone for the winter, or if there might be a few stragglers still around.

It turns out that most hummingbirds do, in fact, migrate. There is even a species of hummingbird (the hummingbird) that makes the longest migration relative to its size of any bird on earth, traveling from Alaska to Mexico! Most lead to sunnier climates in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and even South America. However, there are some who do not. And if they don’t, they definitely need a place to stop and feed.

Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any endothermic animal on earth. Endothermic refers to the fact that hummingbirds, like humans, must generate their own body heat to keep warm. While a high metabolism means they need a huge amount of calories to sustain themselves to live to fly another day. In addition to feeding on tree sap and nectar for calories, hummingbirds are carnivorous and feast on insects and spiders that typically cannot survive winter temperatures. The sugary water we give them and the flower nectar they feed on is just fuel for their insect and spider hunting pursuits. Needless to say, flowers that produce life-giving nectar are also not generally available in cooler temperatures.

But times are changing! And our environment is changing too! Climate change has led to a change in ecosystems. Milder temperatures in some areas allow flowers to bloom year-round and insects to breed year-round as well. Hummingbird feeders also stay out longer and throughout the year, which contributes to the food supply and the hummingbird’s ability to sustain itself.

Finally, hummingbirds use commotion to survive as they cannot see or feed at night. Similar to hibernation, torpor allows hummingbirds to slow their heart rate, conserve energy, and even lower their body temperature to match the surrounding air. It is said that hummingbirds can conserve sixty-five to ninety-two percent of their energy during a flurry, and their heart rates can drop from just over 1200 beats per minute to fifty beats per minute! However, even with the use of hummingbirds, hummingbirds can lose about ten percent of their body weight overnight, but it is still an invaluable tool for their survival.

Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures and there is still much to learn about their migration patterns. I hope this look at their keen ability to survive even in harsh conditions fuels your interest in learning more about these wonderful, tiny wonders!

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