….is the most received question I’ve been asked this season. It’s a complicated question and not one that has a simple answer.
First, one needs to consider the species of hummingbird. Since each has unique and specific needs and habitats. For instance those species affected by the ongoing drought and fire, in the West, are most certainly exhibiting lower numbers due to the longevity of these conditions. Some hummers purely don’t survive these conditions and perish. And when adult perish reproduction numbers are lower. Pretty simple math. If you start with 10, lose 5 and only replace 2 you have a lower number. Some indicators from the fires and ongoing drought include but are *not limited* to observations we saw last season when adult male rufous hummingbird left breeding grounds earlier and started showing up on migration grounds weeks earlier than usual. Reports from Alaska this spring reported fewer males returning and in some instance females getting there first. Is it a trend or just an odd year? We do know from studies that Allen’s, Rufous and Broad-tailed hummingbird numbers have been on the decline since 1970.(https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97889-x)
Here in the east *generally* speaking Ruby-throated hummer numbers seem to be ebbing and flowing depending on the location. Both ends of the spectrum have been reported to me…from seeing none to seeing more than ever. Some of this ‘loss’ is truly loss which might be due to the unavailability of natural food sources and nesting sights while some can be attributed to folks remembering the hectic time of migration and not remembering from year to year that they don’t have those ‘big’ numbers in June and early July. For exmple, I had one host home in particular that always had large numbers of hummingbirds. Then 300+ house were built directly behind their property and numbers fell off significantly. An obvious disturbance to natural food and nesting sights but some changes can also be subtle and still affect your population.
One of those subtle changes could be as simply as more folks feeding hummingbirds. We know for a fact that during the COVID lockdown many more people began feeding birds in general. A simple by-product and explanation for fewer birds at your personal feeder might be due to greater dispersal over a neighborhood or area. For instance if you were the only one on your block feeding and now every other house is doing so, hummers are going to take advantage of the *new* food supply and use all the feeders congregating less at yours. I’ve witnessed this at many of my host homes over the last 2 years. What I’m watching, is if overall these ‘despersed numbers’ continue to drop, stay steady or increase? Since you can’t truly *declare* a downward trend based on a single yard or group of feeders.
Then there is the larger more disturbing trend – pure loss of habitat both here in the US and on the wintering grounds. It can and does influences numbers and bird survival. There is also the ever increasing obstacles birds encounter during migration which in and of itself is a perilous journey. We know both are having a huge effect on all other migratory species so why not hummers?
There is also lifespan or longevity to consider. If a hummingbird’s life span is 3-5 years and within that span of time we have a natural disaster like a hurricane just as birds are arriving on the coast or massive wildfire during breeding time…eventually that one incident will have an affect as the birds reach the end of their natural life and we will see a ‘dip’ in the populaton. Remember in the natural world whether you’re a hummingbird or a bison you need to at least ‘replace’ yourself year after year for your population to remain steady.
With all this said, we do know specific species are in trouble, are declining. The more specific their habitat, food needs or migration journey the more they seem to be in ‘trouble’. Luckily for ruby-throats they are considered to be the most adaptable of the hummingbird species. But that doesn’t mean we’re not watching and aren’t concerned. However we do need to be careful *not* to declare or panic about hummingbird numbers based on observation from just one or two seasons.
Finally, please know that *we* researchers are watching and are taking note and when we truly know something we’ll be sure to report it. In the meantime, keep nectar fresh, feeders clean, plant more flowers native to your specific area and don’t use pesticides. All these things can and will help hummingbirds.