Peeps from the Board: A Tale of Anna’s Hummingbirds

By Edward Monnig

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins with the lines “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna acts with fierce independence against the strictures of her society and her family. She travels beyond the confines of her home in her search of love, fulfillment, and a new reality. Her story can be imagined as a rough parallel to the experience of Anna’s Hummingbirds in Missoula this winter.

The home range of the Anna’s Hummingbirds is generally along the west coast, west of the Cascades and the Sierras. Unlike the three more common hummingbird species in western Montana (Calliope, Rufous, and Black-chinned), Anna’s Hummingbirds are not long-distance migrants. They may move upslope in the mountains during breeding season, but do not escape winter with long migrations south to Mexico or Southeastern US.

Anna’s Hummingbirds have been spotted in the Missoula area in the summer and fall on occasion over the past several years, part of the long-range expansion of their home range to the north and east. Cornell Laboratories reports that in the late 1800’s the breeding territory of Anna’s was confined to southern California and northern Baja California.

My friend Tom first observed two Anna’s in the middle of November, as they tried to feed on an empty artificial nectar feeder still hanging outside his kitchen window. He dutifully filled it and retrieved it every night to keep it from freezing. The system worked well, and the birds visited regularly for several weeks. Then the serious cold hit, and the daytime temperatures rarely climbed above freezing. Not to be outdone, Tom, the creative engineer, rigged a heater that he attached to the feeder.

This outfit worked for another week or two until the very cold northeast winds spilled over the Lincoln saddle near his house. Soon after, Tom noticed a small ball of ice encircling the end of one of the bird’s beak, likely the result of dipping its beak in near-freezing feeder solution. Just like the hummingbird that jabs a bee or wasp and cannot extract its beak, this bird seemed doomed. Again, Tom was not deterred. He took a hair dryer and slowly approached the feeder. The bird sensed his good intentions and stayed while Tom defrosted its beak. He repeated this routine a second time later that day. Hope returned.

Those of us who have lived in Montana for a while know that these northeast winds are harbingers of the bitter cold. Soon the temperature fell below zero Fahrenheit. And the morning came when the Anna’s hummingbirds did not reappear.

Their adaptations to the wet, moderate weather of the Pacific Northwest had not prepared them for this unrelenting core cold. Like Tolstoy’s Anna and her lover, Vronsky, these hummingbirds had ventured into strange lands beyond their capacity to adapt. Unlike Anna they did not have the means to retreat.

It is, of course, too easy to anthropomorphize these wild creatures. Our nature sheds empathy for their distress and compels us to provide for them as we can. And we mourn their individual loss.

There is some solace in knowing that, as a species, Anna’s Hummingbirds are doing well. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey Anna’s Hummingbirds populations had increased by over 2% per year between 1966 and 2014.

The drive that pushed these two pioneers into Montana has served the species well as it expands into new and more hospitable territory. Yet that success as a species has come at the expense of some individuals, these tiny equivalents of the lone wandering wolf.

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