Caren Pritchard hard at work at her hummingbird banding station in Quesnel July, 2013. Photo by Diane Dunaway
Caren Pritchard hard at work at her hummingbird banding station in Quesnel July, 2013. Photo by Diane Dunaway

By Diane Dunaway —

If ever there were a bird that captures our sense of wonder, surely hummingbirds top the list. From their aerodynamic acrobatics to the metallic sheen of their feathers, the smallest birds on the planet exude beauty and joy. Bird books note their feisty behaviour.

Hummingbirds are a New World species, 338 all told, that can only be found in the Americas. Four species visit British Columbia, and in the Cariboo we see three: the Rufous, the Calliope, and recently the Black- chinned. It’s expected that the Anna’s will eventually wend their way here, too.

Hummingbirds are important warm-blooded pollinators, and their contribution to the ecosystem is essential. “The hummingbird parable, with origins in the Quechuan people of South America, has become a talisman for environmentalists and activists who are committed to making meaningful change in the world,” says Michael N. Yahgulanaas in Flight of the Hummingbird. “In this inspiring story, the determined hummingbird does everything she can to put out a raging fire that threatens her forest home. The hummingbird’s wisdom and courage demonstrates that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. The parable is embraced by two of the world’s most influential leaders: Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya who launched the Green Belt Movement and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has spoken widely about his commitment to preserving the environment.”

The range of BC’s migratory hummingbirds is astonishing. In fact, the Rufous has the longest migration of any bird relative to its size. They over-winter in Mexico and the Gulf states and breed from Washington State, through BC, and into Alaska. For the last few years Anna’s hummingbirds have become established as year-round residents of Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

Both the Rufous and Calliope are considered by Partners in Flight to be ‘Species of Continental Concern’. “One of our biggest concerns is the changing phenology of the flowers that they visit to the timing of their arrival,” Susan Wethington notes in the 2010, Western Hummingbird Partnership Action Plan. http://www.hummonnet.org/pdf/201006whp_actionplan.pdf

That is, due to climate change, the new timing of the flower1s nectar flow may not match the historic arrival timing of migratory hummingbirds. Broad-tailed hummingbirds are expected to be among the most heavily affected species because they require high-mountain forest breeding sites to nest and raise their young.

With this in mind, how can we protect these amazing creatures?

Habitat – Plant more hummingbird-friendly flowers; provide clean water in a shallow bath in your garden away from the reach of cats; and, don’t use cosmetic pesticides. To further encourage protein sources for the hummers, you can leave out an overripe banana peel to attract fruit flies.

Syrup – Four parts boiling water to one part sugar, cool before feeding. No red dye, no honey or brown sugar, or any other sweeteners. Change frequently to avoid mould. Thicker dilutions interfere with preening, and don’t benefit the birds. Here’s a link to a video about the hummingbird tongue. It helps one understand why thick syrup is problematic: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/06/the_genius_of_b073491.html

Type of feeder – The easier to clean, the better. Disease can pass from one bird to another if there are too many nooks and crannies where dirt and fungus can hide. Cleanliness of feeders – Rinse every time you fill and occasionally clean with mild dish soap or scrub with sand. Don’t use bleach or other strong disinfectants. Hummingbird Banding Conservation Project

In 2012, Williams Lake resident Caren Pritchard and I volunteered as citizen scientists to The Hummingbird Project. Dr. Alison Moran, assistant professor, program head, Undergraduate Programs, leads the project with the assistance of her husband Dr. Jon Moran, associate professor, School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University in Victoria. They’ve taken over the work started by Dr. Cam Finlay. Super intelligent, moral, and kind people, they both dedicate a tremendous amount of volunteer time to this conservation effort.

My interest in hummingbirds has increasingly piqued since we started feeding them 23 years ago at our home in Soda Creek. Each year we track the first day they arrive, typically a day or two on either side of April 20. Through consistent feeding we’ve built the peak population in May to well over 140 birds. We go through about five litres or more syrup per day at this time when the migratory birds are pushing through and the resident hummers are busy with nest and breeding preparations.
Caren’s deepened love of hummingbirds came about from labour of love. She had a unique rescue experience a few years ago that entailed becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She successfully raised two orphaned baby hummingbirds from pre-fledglings to their release as adults. Her dedication meant feeding them every 15 minutes during daylight hours for weeks. Here’s a link to a six-part YouTube series. Google “Pritchards Hummingbird babies” to find the rest:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9T1J7zSfWo

The opportunity to learn more about hummers, network with some great people, and discover new resources has proved invaluable. It’s serious and delicate conservation work that nobody takes lightly. Caren and I are well on the way to becoming accredited banders, which requires banding 100 birds each under licensed supervision.

We’ve methodically put together a banding team and kit for our area. Sheila Murland and Robb Patterson of Quesnel have both volunteered as scribes. While the work is nerve-wracking and intense it’s also incredibly rewarding. The protocols are extremely strict. Humane traps, numbered jeweler-grade leg bracelets, and fine banding instruments have been developed for this work. Hygienic handling goes without saying. Everything and everyone is wiped down and sterilized between each bird. Notes are made about the age, sex, size, fat stores, body measurements, and health of each bird that is processed. We check for parasites, evidence of pollen on their culmen (beaks), and feathers. A quick puff with a straw to a female’s abdomen shows us where she’s at in the breeding cycle. Occasionally you’ll even see an egg ready to drop.

Selecting a band size takes in to consideration the age of the bird, the species, and sex. Nesting females experience swelling of the tarsus (legs), thus a larger size of band is used. It’s thought that the reason for this swelling has to do with the mother bird’s ability to transfer heat to its eggs and young by gently stomping down on them whilst in the nest.

We aim to have tracking in place before BC’s fourth hummingbird species, the Anna’s, expands its range into the Cariboo. Fortunately, we’ve just secured a permanent banding site in Quesnel to commence this summer. Brian Murland, field supervisor for Conservation and Protection in BC’s interior north district through Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is an avid birder. He’s confirmed that Baker Creek Enhancement Society’s Nature Education and Resource Centre has agreed to participate in our project. This second site in Quesnel is insurance for when Dan Churchill’s Moose Heights private site becomes unavailable. In addition, it’s our goal to find a public site in Williams Lake that will also be available in perpetuity. A commitment to consistent feeder filling and maintenance is crucial.

It’s our hope that as conscientious citizen scientists our work and data collection will contribute valuable information for generations to come. We’re happy to take our lead from the fable about the hummingbird’s wisdom and courage. Even though many aspects of climate change are beyond our reach, surely doing something is better than doing nothing at all.

Further reading and references:
BEST BOOKS –
World of Hummingbirds – Eric Hanson
Hummingbirds of North America – Sheri L Williamson
Flight of the Hummingbird – Michael N. Yahgulanaas.
BEST WEBSITES
Rocky Point Bird Observatory – The Hummingbird Project of BC
http://rpbo.org/hummingbirds.php The Hummingbird Monitoring Network (HMN)
http://www.hummonnet.org/

Diane Dunaway is a Master Beekeeper and lover of all creatures great and small. When she’s not chasing down spring and summer swarms, she can be found at home in Soda Creek where she lives with Dave, her husband of 23 years, and their menagerie of rescue animals.