Here Come the Orange Hummingbirds (Good News and Bad News)
Most folks have seen a bright orange flash around their hummingbird feeder or maybe out hiking. These are rufous hummingbirds. Before getting to the good news/bad news; consider their strange life history. Have you ever thought it unusual that they show up about the first of July? They don’t nest in Colorado. Indeed, they are on their way back from as far north as southeastern Alaska. They breed further north than any other hummingbird. Their US breeding range is essentially confined to Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.
This story so far should strike you as very odd. If they are on their way back, why didn’t we see them on their way north as we do with the sandhill cranes and many shorebirds that show up in the spring and again in the fall? Rufous hummingbirds migrate north up the Pacific coast shunning the intermountain West. Only on their return trip do they pass through Colorado. And, why are we only seeing bright adult males?
As with all hummingbirds, males have only one role in breeding—impregnating the females. That done, they head for home but somewhere in their evolutionary history have developed the unusual practice of migrating in a circuit. All of this is why the first birds you’ll see, showing up in very late June or early July, are only adult males. The females are still busy with their domestic duties but the males are headed back to Mexico where the species spend most of their lives. Females and juveniles will be coming through later in July and in August.
The good news is they are a beautiful little bird. I’ve been lucky enough to see 60 or 70 species of hummingbirds (which, by the way, are only found in the Americas—more about that in an upcoming blog.) So, I’ve seen hummers with names like mountain gem and jewelfront, and coquette. As striking as many of these are, the male rufous is a contender for most handsome.
My photo doesn’t it do it justice. The gorget, if seen perfectly in the sun, is a scintillant orange-red while the body is a shiny rufous-orange—although some are green-backed. So, that’s the good news. This beautiful bird is back again to brighten our yards and feeders. They are also endearing to many people because of their fierce reputation. Often they will successfully chase the local hummers (bad news for them) away and take command of a feeder.
The bad news, for me, takes two forms. On a personal level, they are a sign of summer waning. It may only be July, but here’s a Northern migrant headed home. Can this much-anticipated summer season be slipping away already? Can fall be far behind?
The worse news is that National Audubon Society scientists estimate that the global population of these amazing flyers (1000 miles without food or rest has been recorded) has declined nearly 60 percent in the past three decades. My first encounter with them was in Northern Arizona about 30 years ago. There were dozens among a field of pink beeplant—a sight I’ll never forget.
I will probably see them in my yard this year, but my memory tells me that formerly I saw two or three and had one every day for several weeks. Not so anymore. A couple of years ago, I didn’t’ see any in my yard.
We have some mountain property where up to 30 hummingbirds may show up at our feeders. I can count on the rufous being there again this year—but not so many as ten years ago.
What’s causing the population decline? According to the National Audubon Society: “A deadly combination of habitat destruction, toxic pollution and the spread of invasive plants. And now a new threat may overshadow them all: ecological chaos caused by a warming climate. Warmer weather prompts earlier flowering of nectar-bearing plants that hummingbirds rely on during their epic migrations. If the flowers are gone before the birds arrive, they may starve.” (This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!])