Christine Bishop (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
and Susan Bonfield (Environment for the Americas)
In 2020, Partners in Flight celebrates its 30th Anniversary
and is dedicating its “conservation news” to sharing stories of migratory connectivity and connections to celebrate 30 years of partnerships for bird conservation. We hope you enjoy.
All hummingbirds are metabolic marvels, but Rufous Hummingbirds take it to an extreme. The species has the longest migration of any hummingbird in the world. Relative to its body length, this bird- equal in weight to just a nickel– migrates farther than any bird species. It is the only hummingbird documented to have made the journey to the Old World; there is a record from Russia.
Rufous Hummingbirds migrate from western Mexico and the US Gulf of Mexico coastlines, along the Pacific coast to as far north as Alaska. Along their 4000 km migration, they fly through low valley and coastal habitats in their spring migration to take advantage of early spring flowers and sapsucker wells. Their breeding grounds extend from Oregon to Alaska, with the largest portion of the global breeding range of the Rufous Hummingbird in British Columbia, Canada. On their return migration, they depend on summer blossoms in Rocky Mountain meadows and forests. On this long and precarious journey, Rufous Hummingbirds arrive at each stopover and nesting site to sip flower nectar, catch insects, and use torpor to withstand cold weather. In western Mexico, they select the frequent openings in pine-oak forests at multiple altitudes. The incredibly variable geography used throughout their life cycle exposes the Rufous Hummingbird to many threats.
Feisty, aggressive, even belligerent, the Rufous Hummingbird is a fierce defender of the flowering plants on which it feeds. But changes in the timing of flowering, the density and the diversity of flowers and the quality and quantity of nectar and insects are all susceptible to effects of climate change, forest fire frequency and intensity, invasive species, and the use of pesticides its range. Joint USA and Canadian North American Breeding Bird Surveys since 1966 show Rufous Hummingbird populations have experienced a 60% decrease. And although there are multiple stressors that can affect this species, the exact cause(s) of the decline are still the subject of research.
Research and conservation action for Rufous Hummingbirds is a multi-national collaboration. The Western Hummingbird Partnership (WHP) was created to address concerns about hummingbird populations, including the Rufous Hummingbird. The partnership is a coalition of researchers, educators, organizations, and agencies in Canada, the U.S.A, and Mexico. With participants located along the flyways of the Rufous Hummingbird and other western hummingbird species, the group is focusing on filling the gaps in knowledge of their population demography, response to habitat restoration, and the effects of anthropogenic threats. They have supported studies of habitat use by hummingbirds in Oregon, methods to examine the presence of pesticides in hummingbirds, and the impacts of fire on floral nectar resources. WHP projects also raise awareness of hummingbirds and their conservation in communities from Mexico to Canada. Education materials, hummingbird festivals, and workshops are essential to motivating simple actions that protect all species, from planting native flowers to preventing collisions with windows. Everyone can join their work by becoming part of the WHP’s Hummingbird Highway, ensuring safe passage for this migratory dynamo. Learn more at www.westernhummingbird.org.
Hundreds of hummingbird banders throughout Canada, USA, and Mexico help to track the site fidelity and migration routes of Rufous Hummingbirds and collect urine and fecal samples for pesticide, stable isotope, and genomic analyses.
Rufous Hummingbirds winter usually follow a southern route through the high altitude meadows of the Rocky Mountains to the pine–oak and cloud forests of Mexico and Central America. In the past 30 years, some Rufous Hummingbirds have also started to winter in southern USA. Mexico’s mountain ranges and coastal plains define not only the country, but also a separation of the sexes when it comes to Rufous Hummingbirds. Once on the wintering grounds, it seems that males and females go their own way. Females that nest farther west in the U.S. and Canada are more likely to be found at higher elevations in central and southern Mexico. Females nesting to the east seek lower elevations along Mexico’s coasts. Males avoid Mexico’s mountain chains and are generally found along the coasts. Where they breed does not influence their selection of wintering sites. The samples for the Moran et al. 2013 study were collected by hummingbird banders.
Migration through lowland valleys brings Rufous Hummingbirds in contact with many potential stressors including agricultural areas where they can accumulate insecticides which have been measured in their urine from sites near to blueberry fields.
Rufous Hummingbirds have high site fidelity to nesting areas and often re-use the same nests over several years. They nest in forest openings, edges, second growth conifer and mixed confier-hardwood forests including coastal temperate rainforest. The female alone builds the nest and raises the chicks. She feeds them nectar and, primarily, soft-bodied insects especially diptera (flies).
Environment for the Americas and the University of Guadalajara – CUCSUR coordinated the first Hummingbird Monitoring for Conservation workshop in the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve in Jalisco, Mexico in January 2020. The workshop was hosted by Dr. Sarahy Contreras of Universidad de Guadalajara and Dr. Susan Bonfield, the Director of Environment for the Americas. Dr. Jorge E. Schondube of Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Dr. John D. Alexander of Klamath Bird Observatory were key instructors along with Drs. Contreras and Bonfield. Activities were supported by participant fees and by the Western Hummingbird Partnership.
Ahuacapán, a small pueblo that serves as the gateway to the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve, hosts a Hummingbird Festival to celebrate the migratory and resident species of the area. Children compete for the best hummingbird costume each year.