Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Anna's Hummingbirds jostle for their turn at a feeder filled with sugar water being kept warm by a trouble light in Malahat, B.C., on Dec. 27, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this winter, Shelley Streich Oleksuik found herself enchanted by the beauty, colour and itsy-bittiness of the hummingbird that took up residence on her deck. “There is just something about hummingbirds that tugs at the heart,” says the 59-year-old resident of Hope, B.C.

Ms. Oleksuik greeted the dainty, little bird every morning at 6:45 as she hung his feeder. She talked to him throughout the day, and sometimes would glance up and see him hovering just outside the window, watching her. When she read that Anna’s hummingbirds “persevere” through winter in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, she named him Percival – Percy for short.

And when temperatures plummeted to record, teeth-chattering lows last week, Ms. Oleksuik rigged a contraption to keep Percy’s feeder liquid, using a work light, tinfoil and a cookie sheet.

On Monday, she spotted Percy struggling to move in the minus-20 C cold: “It broke my heart. I gently picked him up and put him somewhere sheltered and safe.” When Percy woke, he flew off. “That was the last I saw of him,” she says.

Extreme weather puts B.C. residents on ‘emotional roller coaster’

Ms. Oleksuik still rises early to put nectar out, and is keeping an informal vigil for her iridescent friend: “I sit and read and look up to his favourite perch, looking for my little man, my Percy. I am surprised by how sad I am, how devastated.”

She is not the only Lower Mainland hummingbirder nursing a broken heart. A legion of them have undertaken a crusade to ensure the resident Anna’s hummingbirds don’t perish in the Arctic outflow gripping the region. Online, they trade tips on the best heating lights and warming pads, and share photos of their feeders swaddled in wool socks and tea cozies.

Allan Wooley, a school custodian from Chilliwack, MacGyvered a contraption using a Rubbermaid tote, a halogen light and Plexiglass. “My wife calls them my other kids,” he says. “I do everything I can to try to keep them warm.”

At dawn, the birds are “chattering in the trees – waiting for their warming stand,” Mr. Wooley adds. One will sit inside the tote for 20 minutes, sunning himself by the light.

The vulnerable, wee birds are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment and have been struggling to cope with the record cold temperatures blanketing B.C., says Jackie McQuillan, who is with Burnaby’s Wildlife Rescue. The rescue centre has admitted 53 hummers in the past week – the biggest influx in its 42-year history. People need to be diligent right now, and keep a close eye on their feeders, she says. “The birds are depending on them.”

Ms. McQuillan says the Anna’s are coming in with injuries including frostbite and damage to their tongues and feet, which have frozen to the feeders. Some are suffering from starvation and hypothermia. “We’ve had to build housing really quickly and order extra food and supplies because of extraordinary number in care right now.”

The Anna’s reddish-pink feathers offer little in the way of insulation. The birds, whose hearts beat 1,200 times a minute and whose wings flap so fast they appear as a blur to the human eye, need to feed constantly to fuel their hovering life.

When nectar or insects are unavailable, or the temperature plummets, they slip into a sleep-like “torpor,” says Alison Moran, with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory on Vancouver Island. Torpor allows them to physiologically check out and is “key” to their survival in winter.

Some will make it, some won’t, Dr. Moran says. “Misadventure” is “natural selection” – allowing the species to survive. Torpor, Ms. McQuillan notes, is one of the ways that the Anna’s have evolved to overwinter in B.C.

Hummers are not the only creatures suffering in the province. Wildlife Rescue says it has never cared for as many animals as in the past year. First, it was the heat dome, then the fires and now this brutal cold snap. Everything combined has produced “the perfect storm for wildlife,” according to Ms. McQuillan.

And while it’s often larger beasts who capture our attention, tiny yet magnificent hummingbirds are a prime example of a species threatened by climate change. They are, writer Jon Dunn says, “the most beautiful canary in the coal mine.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles