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Rufous hummingbirds in decline, KBO says

The Klamath Bird Observatory in Ashland has just completed a tri-national study of the rufous hummingbird, which, for its tiny size, just a couple of inches tall, migrates farther than almost any other bird.

The study, written by ornithologists along the migration route in Canada, here and in Mexico, show a “watch list” bird in decline. Ironically, while most public agencies work to suppress wildfire, the rufous hummingbird evolved with fire and needs it for survival.

“It’s a beautifully charismatic bird, a long-range western forest specialist, so we have a lot of responsibility in what happens to it,” says John Alexander, executive director of the Klamath Bird Observatory. “People love hummingbirds. It migrates to the high elevation pine-oak forests of western Mexico.

KBO published a general technical manual to the U.S. Forest Service about hummingbirds in general and how dependent they are on fire, including in our watershed here.

“We’ve been suppressing fire for a long time,” Alexander says, “but we need to learn to live with fire more.”

Fieldwork took Alexander and another KBO scientist to Mexico, where they worked with researchers from Environment & Climate Change Canada and University of Guadalajara, using controlled burns to create favorable habitat.

The scientists collaborated on the report, noting that climate change is throwing these tiny pollinators a curve because it makes flowers bloom earlier.

“Hummingbirds visit up to 5,000 flowers a day, get pollen on their bills and move it around,” he says, fulfilling a vital function in the environment.

The report’s Canadian coauthor, Christine Bishop, focuses on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on the breeding and wintering grounds of the bird, while Mexican co-author Sarahy Contreras runs the project using fire to enhance wintering habitat conditions.

The importance of the publication, he notes, is that, using the latest on-the-ground research, “we’re super-concerned there’s a 60% decline in hummingbirds in the West since the 1970s. This is the latest state of our knowledge on the threats and the actions we might take to reverse this decline.”

The researchers sought to identify and rank the threats to hummingbirds and all Western migratory birds “so they can be addressed in the most cost-effective manner, and we can focus our conservation dollars in the right place at the right time. We can resurrect indigenous burning, as they did 10,000 years ago. We need more fire that’s controlled, and we’ve worked with local firefighting companies creating a management guide, helping timber companies do post-harvest management.”

In case you wondered, the average hummingbird can travel at 50 mph and, contributing to their vibe as a “miraculous” creature, can beat their wings at an amazing 50 times a second.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Rufous hummingbirds migrate between Canada and Mexico, and a recent study by the Klamath Bird Observatory says the birds are in decline. Photo by Lance Coenen