The Rufous Hummingbird is magical. The male’s iridescent throat glows brighter than a shiny copper penny and like most hummingbirds, whizzes through the air curiously hovering right in front of humans who ponder them. The first time Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, saw one, it was feeding on blossoms of a lemon tree in California.
“It was just one of those other-worldly sites. It was almost like a religious experience,” says Parr with awe and reverence.
“When they just turn their head and suddenly their throat catches the light – it lights up with this amazing color. It’s just magical, really. It just lights up like a beacon.”
They are one of the smallest hummingbirds at just over 3 inches long- but one of the feistiest.
They fly an astonishing 3,900 miles (one-way) from Alaska where they live in the summer to Mexico- one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird in the world compared to its body size, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Californians enjoy them in the spring and Rocky Mountain residents in the fall as the birds feed on flower nectar and tiny insects in high mountain meadows, backyard flowers and hummingbird feeders.
But the Rufous hummingbird, like hundreds of other species, is teetering on the edge.
Birds are the “canary in a coal mine”
The Rufous hummingbird lost two-thirds of its population since 1970, according to the 2022 State of the Birds report.
These tiny creatures are one of 70 bird species on the “Tipping Point” list that will lose another fifty percent of their populations in the same time frame if conservation doesn’t improve. That list includes such flying beauties as the Golden-winged warbler with its stunning yellow cap and black mask.
The reasons, scientists say, are multi-fold: habitat loss from climate change and human development, glass collisions, invasive species (domestic cats) and pesticides; many of the same reasons all wildlife globally have plummeted.
So why should we care that birds are disappearing? One reason, says Parr, is their losses are a harbinger of what human beings face too.
“Birds are the canary in the coal mine,” says Parr. “We’re seeing evidence of some ecological collapse in North America as evidenced by loss of birds.”
Birds rely on nature just as we do – for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, says Parr. As they lose habitat- from large stands of native forest, to open meadows, wetlands and marshes –we too are losing those resources.
“So as things start to unravel, if biological diversity and climate change both unravel simultaneously, the natural world around us that we depend on so much may not be as dependable as we’d like it to be.”
A second reason- birds are essential to our ecosystem. They pollinate flowers and disperse seeds. They eat insects and rodents keeping those populations in check.
Third, they are just beautiful- filling our sky with bird song although a little less every year.
“We don’t want to see birds disappear. So, rather than waiting until the last second, from a conservationist point of view- you just don’t want to see the bird get there in the first place,” Parr says.
“Unfortunately, wildlife doesn’t have its own voice.”
Things you can do to help save birds from extinction
Problem: Glass collisions
Solution: Decals or bird-friendly glass
Nearly 1 billion birds die every year in the United States due to collisions with glass. Birds see a reflection of sky and trees and think it’s habitat they can fly into. Birds not only hit high-rise office buildings but home windows as well. In fact, nearly half of all collisions occur at home windows according to the American Bird Conservancy. Collisions are most frequent during spring and especially fall migration but happen year-round.
The good news is there are ways to prevent these deaths. You can add see-through decals that are peel-on/peel-off, to your windows. Most reflect ultraviolet light- which we can’t see but really stands out for most birds. You don’t necessarily need to put them on all your windows, says Parr. “You can usually identify the windows which are the most problematic.” The American Bird Conservancy has labs which have tested products and deemed them bird-friendly.
Also if you are building a new home or having windows installed, you can install bird-safe glass. Many birding groups are working at the national level to promote bird-friendly building designs and “lights-out” nights during high migration periods.
Problem: Pesticides / habitat-poor lawns
Solutions: Organic gardening, planting native vegetation, setting aside wild areas
Many birds eat insects, but a huge die-out of insect populations worldwide is making food scarcer. Parr says instead of pesticides and herbicides, let birds do their job to eat insects and grass seed in your garden.
“Birds are pretty good pesticides,” says Parr. “They eat a lot of insects. Encourage birds.”
On a larger scale, conservation groups are fighting the use of neonicotinoids or “neonics” – a pesticide used not only on crops but engineered into seeds and used in some backyard plants.
“It’s preventing birds from feeding. If a bird eats the seed, there can be enough on there to actually poison the bird directly. But the bigger effect is the lack of insects.” Parr says it’s important to look at labels when buying products for your lawn or ask landscape companies what’s in the products they use.
You can create more habitat for birds by planting native species and not overly tidying your yard.
“Birds look in little nooks and crannies for food. They like shelter- they need a place to hide from predators.”
Parr says that means leaving the leaves and not being so quick to take down dead wood or trees if they’re not going to cause a safety issue. Woodpeckers love them and Red-headed woodpeckers are also on the Tipping List and rapidly declining.
“We’ve got an obsession with mowing grass and keeping everything tidy. Nature’s not tidy and so if you can tolerate some untidiness in your yard -maybe you can find a part of your yard that you’re gonna let be native and let the grass grow a bit. That’s gonna be better for wildlife, especially if you’re not using pesticides.”
“Nature is messy. Let it be messy. There’s a beauty in there.”
In recent years, conservation-minded landscapers came up with new visions of what yards can look like. They’re a far cry from the 1950’s suburban green carpet look of highly manicured, water-thirsty lawns. That’s especially true out west in places like Arizona and California where they’re dealing with worsening droughts.
Problem: Invasive species - outdoor cats
Solution: Keep your cat indoors
Free-roaming domestic cats pose serious threats to native wildlife according to multiple studies from the USDA and conservation scientists worldwide. They kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds every year in the US alone, according to the American Bird Conservancy. Multiple bird conservation groups say cat predation is by far the largest source of direct, human-caused mortality to birds.
“Cats and the collisions are the two that kill the most birds every year,” says Parr.
But we can do something about it.
“Keep your cat indoors. It’s often quite difficult to encourage your neighbors to keep their cat indoors, but you can try.”
Conservation groups encourage special fencing to prevent cats from straying too far. They also recommend “catios” - open air patios where cats are contained. There are products you can put on cats that make it much harder for them to chase prey.
Not all doom and gloom
Advocates are working every day to save habitat at a macro level in the US and worldwide. As a result of public/private partnerships, they’ve managed to increase populations of ducks, geese and swans in the last twenty years by protecting and cleaning up watersheds and wetlands. Those moves benefit humans too, providing more water runoff areas, less flooding and cleaner ground water.
You can also help fight for the survival of bird species by donating to these groups: American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society and International Bird Rescue.
“We have some responsibility to manage the planet as we found it,” says Parr. “We’re expanding our influences, changing the nature of planet Earth and I feel like there’s a responsibility we all have to not mess it up completely.”
“It’s gonna take a village, you know, everybody’s got to pull their weight”