What Not To Wear Cranewatching

The Sandhill Cranes that winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area have learned that humans are mostly harmless within the no-hunting zone.

The Sandhill Cranes that winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area have grown accustomed to crowds of humans ogling them from the trails and viewing platforms.

Sandhill Cranes have returned to southeastern Arizona for the winter, and I’ll be visiting the flock at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area almost every weekend between now and the end of February. When you have the privilege of spending a lot of time with cranes, you get to see lots of interesting behavior and interactions. Some are hard to miss, but the subtle ones can be the most educational.

One Sunday last February, I was leading a crane watch activity for the public on one of the viewing platforms at the wildlife area. Uncommonly cold temperatures that day kept most visitors away, but a handful of hardy souls joined me to watch the midday crane fly-in. The viewing platform has no roof or walls to block the wind, but spectacular unobstructed views of thousands of cranes made the eye-watering cold worth braving.

Drought had shrunk the playa lake to its lowest level in many years, and the scarcity of open water encouraged the cranes to land even closer to the viewing area than usual. They dropped in a few dozen yards in front of the platform, often skating across patches of ice (and sometimes falling down). The nearest birds cautiously picked their way across the frozen mud to a narrow band of open water a few yards from the platform and bent their long, graceful necks to drink. Camera shutters clicked madly, recording the spectacle.

The idyllic mood was broken by a sudden commotion east of the platform: a group of cranes scuttling warily away from a popular viewing spot on the trail, their necks extended and red crowns expanded in alarm. Peering through the leafless willows to see what had frightened the cranes, we saw four men dressed in varying degrees of hunting camouflage. All wore shirts and billed caps in camo patterns, and at least one wore coordinating pants. They weren’t accompanied by a dog (whose mere presence, even leashed, is known to have negative effects on birds and other wildlife), and none were carrying rifles or shotguns.

A dozen or so people in street clothes of various colors and at least three leashed dogs had already walked past that same spot without discouraging the cranes from approaching the trail. Maybe one of the men pantomimed shooting at the cranes, but it seems more likely that the older, more experienced members of the flock had learned to associate camo-clad humans with danger and reacted to the clothing alone.

Though I’m a strong proponent of dressing inconspicuously for birding, this experience has caused me to have second thoughts about whether hunting-style camo is a good choice for field wear, at least for watching cranes and other hunted birds.

Rethinking winter hummingbirds

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in 2010 in my “Out the Window” column in WildBird magazine. Though the focus is vagrant hummingbirds of migratory species, many of the issues apply equally to semi-migratory hummingbirds such as Anna’s that have expanded their range into areas where winter survival depends on feeders. 

Anna's Hummingbirds are the most cold-tolerant of any North American species, but even they can't survive extended periods of subfreezing weather without help from their human hosts.

A hungry male Anna’s Hummingbird fills his crop moments after a thick layer of fresh snow was brushed off the feeder. Anna’s are the most cold-tolerant of all North American hummingbirds, but even they can’t survive extended periods of subfreezing weather without help from their human hosts.

For more than 20 years I’ve been telling people that it takes more than a bottle of sugar water to keep a healthy hummingbird on the breeding grounds when its instincts tell it to head south. Though that’s still true, it doesn’t apply to the increasing numbers of vagrant hummingbirds whose instincts lead them not to the tropics or the relatively mild southern and coastal parts of the U.S. but to cold latitudes where their chances of long-term survival are slim.

In some cases, these seemingly lost and doomed migrants do make it through the winter with a little help from their human friends, even surviving to return the following fall. It’s the less fortunate ones and the dilemmas they pose for their hosts and admirers that caused me to rethink my longstanding advice to leave hummingbird feeders up in fall.

The vast majority of wild birds live and die without a single human ever taking a personal interest in their welfare, but hummingbirds aren’t most birds. Their deceptive daintiness and apparent dependence on our gardens and feeders trigger much stronger and more complex emotions in us. Small wonder, then, that firestorms of controversy often erupt over whether, when, and how to help vagrant hummingbirds that are struggling to cope with brutal northern winters.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with tiny birds in trouble. A hands-off policy, as heartless as it may seem, would be the logical choice if wintering hummingbirds were getting by entirely on natural resources. Once artificial feeders and the people who tend them enter the picture, “letting nature take its course” is no longer an option. It’s not so easy to talk about natural selection when you have to look that hummingbird in the eye each morning as it huddles on its slushy feeder.

Intervention has its own hazards, even when left to licensed experts (as required by federal law). The “Three Rs”— Rescue, Rehabilitate, and Release—may fail if delayed until the bird is too weak to survive the stress of capture or if the specialized care it needs is unavailable. Some wildlife rescue groups are reluctant to take in hummingbirds because they don’t have the expertise or resources to provide proper care.

New problems arise when the rescuers decide to add a fourth “R”: Relocate. It was once common practice to capture vagrant hummingbirds, even those in no obvious distress, and fly or drive them hundreds of miles to warmer climes. As we learned more about hummingbird migration, we realized that in most cases this is a spectacularly bad idea. Like many other birds, hummingbirds learn the particulars of their migration routes by experience. Without that experience, a bird that manages to survive capture and relocation may end up permanently disoriented. Release at or near the original rescue site allows the bird to reorient itself to familiar landmarks in preparation for the next leg of its journey, whether further south or back towards its breeding grounds.

When to release a rescued hummingbird can be just as important as where, especially for early-migrating species such as Rufous and Allen’s. Their northward migration along the Pacific Coast is well underway in January and February, when much of the U.S. is still in the grip of winter. Releasing a hummingbird in the dead of winter isn’t as crazy as it may sound. Some of the tougher species have been observed to hang on through blizzards and ice storms only to move on once the weather cleared.

This Pine Warbler is no better adapted to winter weather than most hummingbirds, but few people would advocate capturing it for relocation or incarceration in a zoo.

This Pine Warbler is no better adapted to winter weather than most hummingbirds, but few people would advocate capturing it for relocation or permanent captivity.

Another misguided approach is to sentence “defective” hummingbirds to life in captivity. Though modern zoo ethics discourage taking wildlife out of the wild, this was exactly what happened to a Green-breasted Mango that found its way to southern Wisconsin in the autumn of 2007. This spectacular bird, only the second member of its mainly tropical species ever seen north of southern Texas, was preemptively rescued ahead of a winter storm and transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Against the advice of numerous hummingbird experts, center officials decided to turn the bird over to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Members of the hummingbird community lobbied for the bird’s release either back in Wisconsin or in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but zoo officials were determined to add this avian celebrity to the collection. The following fall a late-migrating Ruby-throated from Michigan ended up at the same zoo under similar circumstances, again against the advice of experts.

How do we keep hummingbirds out of these predicaments in the first place? One simple change in your feeder routine could make a huge difference. Switching to a sugar-water ratio of 1:3 by early September, when high-risk birds may be passing through, will help your visitors put on fat more efficiently while still providing essential water. The higher sugar content also lowers the solution’s freezing temperature without making it too syrupy for hummingbirds to drink, so it’s the perfect recipe for winter feeding as well. Most hummingbirds take to the sweeter solution right away, but you can gradually increase the sugar content over several days to avoid alienating your regular clientele.

Of course, the ultimate solution to the problem is to stop feeding hummingbirds before winter sets in. If you live north of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a  (average minimum winter temperatures 5 to 10̊ F.) and would prefer not to take on the responsibility of hosting a wintering hummingbird, simply take down your feeders within a week after before the first frost or by mid-October, whichever is earlier, even if there are still hummingbirds around. You’ll still be providing a boost to tardy migrants without encouraging any wayward travelers to consider your yard as a possible winter refuge.

* With increasingly erratic weather resulting from global warming, some areas with long, cold winters are experiencing first frosts later in the fall, after most hummingbirds have reached their winter destinations. Taking feeders down while natural resources are still abundant provides a less abrupt transition for any lingering birds and may increase their chances of survival, at least in the short term. [updated 11/30/16]

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When the going gets chilly, the chill get crafty

hand-crocheted humingbird feeder cozy

My hand-crocheted hummingbird feeder cozy

After posting a bunch of second-hand/theoretical advice for keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing, I found myself and my clientele (several Anna’s and a Violet-crowned or two) facing a forecast low of 13º F. (-10º C.). My northern friends will smirk (and rightly so), but this is southern Arizona for peeps‘ sake.

Since temperatures this low are such a rare event here, insulating the feeder seemed like the most sensible (and cheapest) approach. Besides, my crochet hooks had been collecting dust since last fall, and this was a good excuse to get back to hooking. So to speak.

After a quick stop to shop for appropriately colored yarn and about two hours of hooking, unraveling, and rehooking, I had a crocheted feeder cozy for an 8-oz. Nature’s Best (my all-time favorite bottle feeder that’s no longer available, sadly).

Before calling it a night, I filled a clean feeder with hot 3:1 solution, slipped on the cozy, and stumbled across the starlit yard to hang it in one of the more popular spots. Another Nature’s Best that had been out all day had frozen beyond the Squishee stage already, with a band of syrup trapped between solid layers of ice.

When I finally got around to checking the feeder this morning (about an hour and a half after sunrise), there was no ice in the bottle at all, but swirls of denser syrup indicated that at least some of the solution had frozen. Interestingly, the HummZinger Mini hanging in front of the poorly insulated living room window showed no signs of having frozen, despite containing a smaller volume of solution with larger surface area and getting very little morning sun to warm it up (it’s on the north side of the house).

I was a little worried about how the hummingbirds would respond to the weird appearance of their feeder. The female Violet-crowned Hummingbird didn’t seem the least bit put off by the bright red “sweater,” but then she didn’t have to wear it.

Related posts:

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

Two winters ago I posted some suggestions for helping hummingbirds through winter weather, including boosting the sugar content of the feeder solution, taking advantage of heat radiating from windows, creating shelters, and using heat lamps. A lot of people are dealing with frozen feeders already this season, so here are a few more suggestions gleaned from the winter hummingbird community:

  • Make a “feeder cozy” to help fresh solution retain its warmth longer. It can be as fancy as you like—knitted, crocheted, quilted, down-filled—but pipe insulation (fiberglass wrap or foam tube) or a section cut from a discarded blanket or sweater will do the job. If it’s roomy enough, you may even be able to tuck handwarmer packs inside. [A commenter on BirdForum mentioned using stockings; if your feeder bottle is small enough, a heavy wool sock would make a quick and easy cozy.]
  • Wrap your feeder in outdoor-rated incandescent Christmas lights (the old style, not energy-efficient LEDs). The bulbs should produce enough heat to keep the sugar water slightly above air temperature, especially if you add an outer layer of aluminum foil to reflect heat and block wind.
  • Wrap your feeder in pipe heating tape under a layer of insulation. Thermostatically controlled models will save energy by turning on as necessary to keep the solution just above freezing.
  • Invert your sugars. The freezing point of a solution depends on the number of molecules present. More solute (sugar) molecules make it harder for the solvent (water) molecules to link up. Inverting your sugar, which breaks each sucrose molecule into one of fructose and one of glucose, doubles the number of molecules and depresses the freezing point by a few additional degrees without adding additional sugar.

To invert ordinary table sugar, combine 2 cups sugar with 1 cup water, adding 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar to speed up the reaction. Heat the solution to a low boil on the stovetop in a heavy saucepan, washing down the sides of the pan with a little additional water to dissolve any stray sugar crystals. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature, which will rise above the boiling point of water as the water in it boils away. Once it reaches 230° F., remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool, then pour it into a clean jar, pop on the lid, and store in the refrigerator. Substitute invert syrup for no more than half of the sugar in your feeder solution and reduce the water slightly (by about 2 tablespoons per cup) to compensate for the water in the syrup.

Safety first! Lights and heating tape present fire and electrocution hazards. Use only products that are rated for outdoor use, including extension cords. Do not use electric heating pads outdoors! Don’t enclose Christmas lights inside a cozy or place a cozy-covered feeder too close to a heat lamp—it could start a fire. Heat lamps or Christmas lights may melt the flimsy plastic of discount-store feeders.

Useful links:

Feeding hummingbirds in winter in Indiana

Hummingbird feeder heater using Christmas lights

More on making and using invert sugar from Not So Humble Pie

Related posts:

Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

When the going gets chilly, the chilly get crafty

“Out the Window” preview

Here’s a teaser from my “Out the Window” column in the January/February 2011 issue of WildBird magazine:

Hi, my name is Sheri, and I’m a sparrow-phobic. I used to get queasy at the mere thought of identifying those “little brown jobs.” For the first three decades of my birding career, the sparrow section of my life list would have been almost blank if not for towhees, juncos, and the “skunkheads” (White-crowned and White-throated).

I was finally forced to admit that I had a problem when I moved from the relatively sparrow-free Huachuca Mountains to the sparrow-infested desert…

Not a WildBird subscriber yet? This link to Amazon.com will get you six colorful, information-packed issues (a full year), and your purchase will also benefit the conservation and education programs of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. Single copies of Wildbird are also available at newsstands and bookstores.

You’ll find WildBird and other birding magazines plus field guides, feeders and accessories, seeds for hummingbird-friendly plants, and more at SABO’s online shop, The Trogon’s Nest, powered by Amazon.com.

Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

With the usually temperate Pacific Northwest battered by fierce winter storms, there’s a lot of concern about how the resident Anna’s Hummingbirds are handling brutal temperatures and frozen feeders, and what their human hosts can do to help them survive.

One way to help is to use a slightly stronger feeder solution. Many people, myself included, have switched to a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part sugar for all or most of the year. The sugar concentration (about 23% by weight) is closer to the average sugar content of hummingbird flower nectars (about 25%) than the standard 4:1 recipe (about 18%), and it has the advantage in winter of freezing a little more slowly.

It’s important not to go overboard, because more is not necessarily better. Sugar solutions sweeter than 3:1 can be syrupy enough to interfere with feeding efficiency, and this effect is magnified as temperatures plunge. There’s also the issue of dehydration, since nectar is a hummingbird’s main source of water (especially when everything else is frozen).

Even 3:1 will freeze if the temperatures dip low enough, but some winter hummingbird hosts have reduced the need for switching feeders by placing them next to a window (the more poorly insulated the better), inside an open shelter made of plywood, or under an outdoor-rated heat lamp.

If you make the switch to 3:1, you’ll need to adjust your expectations a bit. Since it contains more calories per drop than 4:1, your birds will not have to visit as often. It may look as though they’re avoiding the feeder when actually they’re just feeding more efficiently.

Related posts:

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

When the going gets chilly, the chill get crafty

Rethinking winter hummingbirds

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing