You don’t have to live in Kentucky long to figure out that Kentucky weather can be a bit crazy. Seventy degree weather one day and snow the next? Yep, we can do that. Noooo problem. I know many of our neighbors in Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio claim the same type of weather.
Although spring is well on its way, it isn’t unheard of for Kentucky to get snow in early April and cold nights are still very likely. Our average frost free date is April 15. The average frost free date only means that 50% of the time we don’t get a frost any later than that. Of course, that means 50% of the time we do get a frost after April 15, but the odds of it happening are going down the later in April you get. We aren’t considered completely free of any chance of a frosty night until early May.
Recognizing the chance of cool, wet days and frosty nights is important because hummingbirds tend to show up in Kentucky within a couple of weeks of the average frost-free date. That means they can easily be here for a late snow fall or have to survive a period of cold, frosty nights.
Hummingbirds need a near constant supply of food to survive. Their metabolism is so high that they often eat more than their body weight in a single day. If it is too cold and / or wet, then it takes too much energy for the hummingbirds to stay active and most of the flowers they would feed on will be closed. Instead of expending all that extra energy for little to no gain, the hummingbird goes into a state called torpor.
Torpor is kind of like a short-term hibernation that many types of animals use to conserve energy when they run into unfavorable weather conditions. When in torpor, the hummingbirds lower their heart rate and body temperature to conserve energy. They can lower their metabolism by as much as 95% and it can be almost impossible to detect any signs of breathing. Hummingbirds in torpor can easily look dead or nearly dead.
PLEASE if you find a hummingbird in torpor, leave it alone. It can take up to an hour for a hummingbird to come out of torpor after the appropriate environmental conditions are met. So messing with it to see if it responds is not a good way to judge whether it is ok. In fact, that’s rarely a good way to judge whether any wild animal is ok.
I’ve heard of well-intentioned people bringing hummingbirds inside that they found perched somewhere in cold weather. They thought the hummingbird was freezing to death because it didn’t move and appeared to be lifeless even though it was still perched. They were trying to be helpful, but let me be very clear about this. Despite your best intentions, if you bring a hummingbird inside you are not helping it. You are killing it. I won’t even go into all the laws you would be breaking by bringing the hummingbird inside. The best thing you can do is leave the hummingbird where you found it. Again, that is good advice for any wild animal that you find whether it is a hummingbird in torpor or a baby deer.
Hummingbirds are a favorite garden visitor for so many people. It’s only natural for people who find a hummingbird in torpor to want to help when our crazy spring weather decides to pitch a temper tantrum and go back to winter. However, it is likely that the hummingbird isn’t dead or, to borrow a phrase from the Princess Bride, even “mostly dead,” and it doesn’t need Miracle Max’s or anyone else’s help. If left alone, the hummingbird will ride out the cold spell just fine in its state of torpor, then wake up and go about its business as soon as the conditions become favorable again. Hummingbirds have been doing this for many thousands of years.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.