The hummingbird feeders outside Bernard Ewell’s house are usually buzzing with thousands of wings.
This year, there is less competition for the sugar water.
“They are always on time every year,” Ewell said. “I would say no more than maybe two dozen are here now, though. This year is different. We’re really in trouble.”
Scientists say it’s hard to judge by word of mouth whether there is a significant drop in hummingbird numbers in the area this year, but they note bird populations in general have been declining for decades across New Mexico and around world.
“Are there less this year? We kind of do get this question every year. And the truth is, yes. The reality is there are less birds on the planet,” said Amy Erickson, an avian biologist with Audubon Southwest. “Especially in terms of people not just comparing with last year but also thinking about when they were kids. If you were thinking about your yard in 1990, now it probably is a lot different.”
According to research published in 2019 by Cornell University and the American Bird Conservancy, the total breeding bird population in the U.S. and Canada has dropped 29 percent since 1970.
Ewell, who lives in Canoñcito within the Pecos National Historical Park and works as a volunteer caretaker of the grounds, said hummingbirds from Mexico and Central America typically start showing up at his place the first week of April.
The males fly high in the air and dive toward the ground to impress the females.
By July, when the chicks hatch and hummingbirds migrating south from the Arctic and other northern breeding grounds begin to make a pit stop, he said, he typically sees 10 birds at a time at each of his 12 feeders, which experts have told him means he supports over 1,000 birds.
Ken Bunkowski, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store, said customers from around Santa Fe have reported fewer hummingbirds than usual this time of year.
“We’re hearing from quite a few customers that the number of hummingbirds they are seeing is down 50 percent or even more for a typical April and May,” Bunkowski said. “I think it’s real and likely they have been significantly impacted by the drought if plants and flowers are limited along the way. There is no short-term solution to climate change. Seeing things like this will be more and more common.”
Leslie Hay, a biologist and wildlife program leader for the U.S. Forest Service, said the short and long-term impacts of extensive drought on migratory bird populations are evolving.
“One of our concerns currently is the extensive drought that is occurring over much of the American West. The drought, cold weather at unusual times, or very hot weather in some mountainous areas will affect food, water, air movements and more,” Hay said. “All of these factors can also interact to create cumulative impacts that can affect bird behavior, bird reproduction and ecology that all together can impact bird migration patterns and dynamics.”
Following a massive bird die-off in September in the state, researchers at the University of New Mexico attributed the alarming piles of dead migratory birds primarily to unseasonably cold weather that had killed off edible insects and induced hypothermia.
Hay said Northern New Mexico mostly has black-chinned hummingbirds, which have a purple throat, and broad-tailed hummingbirds, which have a pinkish throat.
Ewell, who goes through 350 pounds of sugar most springs and summers, said he also sees rufous hummingbirds, which are orange, and calliope hummingbirds, which are especially small.
Both Hay and Erickson said local birdwatchers should still see an increase in hummingbird numbers by July. Erickson added native plants provide much more nectar for the birds than decorative flowers do.
“As the season progresses, the local populations are augmented by migrants coming down from more northerly areas, and also by the arrival of rufous and some calliope hummingbirds,” Erickson said. “So by the time July, August rolls around, you will start seeing more hummingbirds.”
Erickson said the population of black-chinned hummingbirds has increased in recent years, and the birds are expanding their range in some areas of the West. Data shows black-chinned hummingbirds, along with broad-tailed hummingbirds and other species, have benefited from feeders around residential areas where they spend the spring and summer breeding.
“Four parts water and one part sugar,” Bunkowski said. “It’s easy to mix up and put out for the birds. They greatly appreciate a readily available supply of energy.”