Hummingbirds: Are their numbers dwindling and where are they going?

According to widespread reports, there does seem to be fewer hummers this year. Normally (past 20 years or so), we have had 300-plus each season. They nearly worked me to death filling 25-30 large feeders during the two population peaks.

This season, they were both later than usual and apparently fewer. Currently, we only have approximately 50-60 hummers.

The first bright, fresh hatchlings were seen at out feeders during the first week of June - right on time. Numbers of adults and hatchlings were definitely off, according to my 35-plus years of records.

Noted ornithologist and hummingbird bander, Lanny Chambers plots the migration progress on charts each year. He generously shares that information with us as the data comes in.  The explanation for what is perceived as fewer numbers of hummingbirds might well be explained by examining the dates of migration advance over the last several years. If you really want to be scientifically valid, you might consider the 16 years that Lanny has prepared his charts, as statistically significant.

Ruby-throated hummers (RT hummers) have been shown to appear along the Gulf coast right on time, about Feb. 20-25. This consistency has not varied for the 16 years, since Lanny began keeping records. What has varied is the advance of hummers into northern latitudes. The last two 2 years show a remarkable difference in northward migration.

Temperature has to be part of the equation.

We had an unusually warm winter in 2012 and waves of migrating birds were being reported in New York and even Canada before many in Virginia saw the first one.

Then came a very cold snap. Many of those early migrants, in northern latitudes, probably did not survive the frigid temperatures. Unlike many western species, RT hummers do not have the ability to undergo torpor. According to the 2012 charts, RT hummers were well distributed in Virginia by the
first week in April. The first to arrive were in the last week of March.

This 2013 year, northward migration started on time in February. Then progress began to bog down. If you recall, there was a strong mass of cold air dominating the upper half of the country. Hummingbird sightings were being reported up to an imaginary line stretching from Charlotte, N.C., across to
about mid-Tenn. This information can easily be extrapolated directly from Lanny's chart data. Migration did not pick up again until the second or third week in April.

Many reports of fewer numbers have come in from North Carolina, Southern Virginia all the way over to Memphis, Tenn. It is obvious that  RT hummers do not tolerate extreme cold for long, and most likely tend to avoid punishing themselves as a survival measure.  

Did the birds that would have migrated to Virginia decide to stay South of the cold air mass or did large numbers of birds perish in the protracted cold. We may never know the answer to those questions. I would hope that if we have a warm spring next year, hummingbird numbers will rebound.

Reprinted courtesy Joe Lively of Farmville, Va., and the Virginia Society of Ornithology; subscribe and join at


Posted by Kathy Van

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