TISDALE — Carol Sigfrid began to grow worried as she noticed the small ruby-throated hummingbird outside her window hadn’t moved from the vines it was perched on all day.
“It was raining; it was a real miserable day,” Carol said. “He was there all day, he never even went to try to drink and a small hummingbird needs to drink often. He was all puffed up and he was just sitting there.”
Concerned for the small bird, she sent her son, Jason Sigfrid, out to gently pick him up and bring him in.
Carol carefully took the small creature in her hand, and dipped his beak in a shallow cup of sugar water she prepared. In response, the hummingbird drank and slowly begin to grow a little more energized.
Worried about him, Carol doubted he would last the night.
“When we first got him in he was lethargic, he was very cold. When he got a little bit warmer he got a little bit better and he drank,” Carol said.
“I named him Buddy, my little buddy.”
The next day Carol brought Buddy with her as she left for work. It was in the evening she noticed Buddy wasn’t acting as energetic as he was when he was first fed, and instead seemed to return to the tired condition she found him in.
On the advice of the Northeast Vet Services, Sigfrid called the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Saskatchewan. The Society then reached out to Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation in Saskatoon and sent a volunteer couple from Melfort, who picked up Buddy and brought him to Saskatoon for treatment.
Jan Shadick, executive director of Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation, used the time it took Buddy to arrive at Living Sky to prepare a special formula for him.
“They need a special formulation for nectar rather than just the sugar water which most people provide, which makes an excellent energy source as they’re moving through,” Shadick said. “On a long term basis, they require just a little bit more nutrients than just sugar and water.”
When Buddy arrived, Shadick immediately recognized the hummingbird as a juvenile, at about the bird equivalent of a teenager.
“We receive hundreds of animals each year and usually we’ve gotten one, possibly two hummingbirds. I don’t think we’ve ever had a juvenile so it was exciting,” Shadick said.
A juvenile at this time of the year, while not impossible, is uncommon. Shadick calls birds like him “late bloomers”.
“It could be a multitude of different things. It could be the parents had an earlier clutch, and are having a second clutch, or maybe their first clutch failed and they’re shooting for a second clutch.”
In examining Buddy, she was happy to see that he was able to fly and didn’t appear to have any wing injuries.
The treatment she administered was a simple one, a proper diet and introduction of an adult to help guide him.
Shadick said that unlike with hummingbirds in the wild, the captive hummingbirds they had displayed a more co-operative nature.
“When there were two hummingbirds in there, the baby was a little nervous with two of them in there. And then when we were able to release one we were able to put him in with the single adult and they seemed to accept each other more.”
Without seeing Buddy’s original condition when removed from the vines, Shadick said it would be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of his condition.
One of her suspicions is that Buddy was affected by torpor.
“If it was a really chilly day, hummingbirds need a lot of warmth to be able to fly,” Shadick said. “They use an amazing amount of energy. What they do, is they actually go into something called ‘torpor’ at night. They just slow all their body functions down, it’s kind of a mini version of hibernation, if you will. They go into this, really reduce their energy usage on those chilly nights.”
When hummingbirds get out or torpor, they go to a place where sunlight catches them and warms up their bodies.
“As they warm up, they get the blood flowing through the system again and go out of torpor, and then they will do that buzzing, that amazingly speedy buzzing and intake as much food and energy as possible.”
Shadick said it was a possibility that it was just too cold and rainy for the juvenile to be able to go out and feed himself.
Whether or not it was the right move to pick up Buddy, Shadick said was a tough call to make. On one hand his parents could have come and helped him, on the other hand he could have stayed there and died.
“If his parents were really expecting him to take care of himself and he wasn’t doing that he may or may have not made it. It’s always hard to judge whether something was sort of the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. Hindsight can be 20/20 but it can also be wrong.”
As Buddy’s treatment progressed, Carol phoned the centre and asked about his condition.
“We were pleased to say that he was doing well,” Shadick said. “We were a little bit concerned about releasing it because it was still doing what we would call, ‘gapping’ which means he was still looking at the adults and opening its mouth and saying, ‘please feed me’, which is what baby birds do.”
Concerned about Buddy’s chance of surviving in the wild, and with migratory season upon them, Shadick asked Carol to pay attention and make note if she sees any other hummingbirds around. If not, it meant Buddy’s parents had already flown south without him.
Without his parents, Buddy wouldn’t be able to make it in the wild.
“Parents always do the best job with their kids,” Shadick said. “It’s true for humans, it’s true for birds as well.”
The next day Carol phoned Shadick back. She saw them. The parents were still there, buzzing around her feeder.
With these new survival skills Buddy picked up at rehabilitation, and parents to guide him, Buddy could make it.
Shadick made arrangements to have the little hummingbird sent back the next day with Dr. Karen Sigfrid from the Northeast Vet Services, and Carol’s own daughter.
Included was enough nectar to feed Buddy every 15 to 20 minutes, at which point bird would make a peeping noise to signal that he wanted food.
For feeding, the rehabilitation centre gave her a syringe. Buddy would put his beak up into the syringe and drink the syrup from it.
Buddy returned to Tisdale on Aug. 31 in a margarine container with holes cut into it. In the middle was a small branch allowing him to perch.
Carol noticed a clear energy difference between the little Buddy she held in the margarine container, and the little Buddy she sent off for help.
“He was really cute, but I had to be careful because I had to feed him a few times before I let him go because it was overnight,” Carol said.
“Karen brought him in the night, in the evening. I didn’t want to let him go in the evening because they’re not flying around – his family wouldn’t be flying around.”
In the morning she fed him, and then brought him outside with some family members.
“He was so fast, we tried to keep track of him but it was pretty much impossible.”
Carol saw Buddy join up with his parents, which she reported to Shadick.
“I think this is the best possible outcome for this little baby,” Shadick said. “It has its parents; it has other hummingbirds that can show it the way in terms of migration, where to go what flowers to choose – really provide that parental community support for it.”
Shadick recommends that if any potentially injured bird is found, the first thing someone should do is call Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation at 306-281-0554.
By calling them, or the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Saskatchewan, they can be walked through the questions of, ‘Does it look healthy?’ ‘Are the parents around?’
“Each situation is completely on an individual process. It could be that it hit the window and there was a bit of a wing droop, or not, so there are lots of questions to be able to be asked.”
According to Shadick, hummingbirds are currently on the decline for a number of reasons.
“Humans don’t like bugs so we use a lot of pesticides, and in doing so we kill a lot of food for our aerial insectivores.”
While hummingbirds do drink sugar water for energy, they eat small bugs in the wild for the nutrients they need to sustain themselves.
“We’re also using a lot of herbicides and between the two of them, when you have a bird that drapes from flowers and eats bugs, both of its food sources are being impacted by the use of some kind of toxins.”
In addition to the resource shortage, they are also impacted by habitat loss and cats.
“Aerial insectivores are in huge decline, but lots of other birds are also in decline and the primary reason for most of them is going to be habitat loss and very often people comment on human causes such as window strikes and outdoor cats are often a part of that as well.”
Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation receives hundreds of cat caught birds every year, including a separate hummingbird treated this year who survived a cat attack.
“And those are just the ones that survive to make it to us.”
Shadick said if someone wants to help avian populations like Buddy, one thing they can do is if they’re a cat owner is keep the pet inside, particularly during nesting and migration which takes place between May and September. Another thing someone can do is put up sugar water hummingbird feeders to give a boost of energy to the little birds who stop by.
“Creature windows” can also serve to help birds avoid bumping into windows, if a window in particular is often hit by avian travelers.
“There’s decals, there’s tape, there’s reflective objects you can put on the outside of your windows to prevent birds from flying into your windows,” Shadick said. “What happens is birds fly through a forest so they’re quite adapt and flying around branches and around objects. So if you put up one decal the bird can fly around it.”
Shadick uses dots on a particular window in her house that previously caused problems with birds.
“It caused a 99 per cent reduction in birds at my window. They see these dots and they go, ‘Oh, that’s a solid object’, and they don’t hit the window.”
The Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation in Saskatoon is currently seeking specialized volunteers for work across the community, both delivering rehab and administering euthanasia when no other option is possible. Each volunteer would be required to undergo a training program.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through, there’s some training you have to take, there are standards you have to follow.”