There is snow in the foothills, and the peas in my garden stubbornly refuse to prosper. Spring is arriving but at a painfully slow pace.
I can usually count on rufous hummingbirds to brighten my yard by late March even when everything else is biding its time waiting for a little sun, a little warmth. Each year it's a race between the pussy willows and the hummers. Will the rufous hummingbird males arrive in time to feed on the nectar from the pussy-willow flowers or will the flowers have faded?
It's been a cold spring, and the pussy willows were slow to bloom. The trees should have hosted the bright cinnamon-colored male birds with their iridescent red throats. The metallic whine of their wings should have been a common sound, but the yard remained quiet.
Birders across the valley asked one another, where are the rufous hummingbirds? When rufous hummingbirds arrive they usually swamp a feeder, birds left, birds right, birds squabbling, birds chasing. A few days tanking up on sugar water, and the spirited frenzy moves on, leaving a few behind to breed in the valley. The Rogue Valley is near the southern extreme of their breeding range.
Given the weather, have they paused in California? I'd wait — especially if my body weighed about 3 grams. Birds may alter their pace of migration to some extent, but only by a few days, maybe a week. The pull of spring is strong. Many were concerned. Did they skip over us, or are there fewer birds? I assume the unusual weather held them up to the south, and when they did come, many raced on by. I have seen some but not as many as usual. Still, there is reason for concern.
The rufous hummingbird is one of many species across the country that has declined markedly in recent years. Between 1966 and 2005 detections dropped 55 percent. That's a steep decline, and no one knows why.
Much of this data comes from Breeding Bird Surveys conducted by birders throughout North America. A route consists of 25 stops located a half-mile apart where the birds detected in a three-minute period are recorded.
There are many routes spread across every habitat. Some routes have been repeated every year since the 1960s, and the data tell us a lot about population trends.
Is the problem with rufous hummingbirds in their wintering area in Mexico? Is it the loss of habitat somewhere in migration? We don't know. Those who have looked at the data and matched it with what little published research there is suspect it has to do with forest-management practices on the breeding area.
Rufous hummingbirds breed in forests. One might expect logging to be a good thing for hummingbirds. Flowering plants sprout up in abundance after a timber harvest. Yet, rufous hummingbirds are most common among the understory plants of second-growth and old-growth forests. Current management practices tend to leave little understory vegetation.
No one is ready to put the rufous hummingbird on the Endangered Species list just yet. It is estimated there are about 6,000,000 birds remaining, but the trend is troubling.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.