The animal kingdom is filled with unique species that each add their own indelible mark to the world and its processes. Among its smallest – and arguably most beautiful – is the hummingbird, a unique and easily identifiable specimen due to its ability to hold itself still in flight in the way of insects, as it extracts pollen from flowers.
Hummingbirds are one of the world’s most important pollinators and are responsible for helping numerous plants flourish, including fruits and vegetables. These birds, which currently feature 338 known species across the earth, will each visit over 3,000 flowers each day to drink nectar and fertilize them. Notwithstanding its beauty, however, this tiny creature faces huge obstacles in its fight for survival, with some of the most menacing being urbanization, pesticide usage, and the spread of invasive plants.
As forests are being cut down at a record rate to pave the way for the built environment, it makes it harder for the hummingbird to find adequate living conditions as well as the plants they need to feed on to survive. An unsurprising 2017 study showed that an area with thicker urban density has fewer hummingbirds in it due to an increase in deforestation to make way for buildings and impervious surfaces.
Costa Rica is one particular example which demonstrates how harmful urbanization has been to its hummingbird population. This tropical country is the only home of the endangered Mangrove Hummingbird which lives along its Pacific coastline, a creature which has been losing its oceanside habitat due to frequent road development and logging, thus making it harder to find suitable untroubled nesting spots.
While hummingbirds face many challenges in Costa Rica, one of its capital’s feeder cities, Curridabat, has recognized the decline of hummingbirds and similar pollinators and created legislation that granted them citizenship as a way to protect them. As such, the city has completely transformed its once industrial areas into a pollinator oasis by planting an abundance of trees and flowers for them to feast on.
“Pollinators are the consultants of the natural world,” says Curridabat Mayor Edgar Mora Altamirano. “They are supreme reproducers and they don’t charge for it. The plan to convert every street into a bio-corridor and every neighborhood into an ecosystem required a relationship with them.”
Urbanization hasn’t just caused habitat loss though. In fact, it is thought supplementary feedings undertaken by citizens have negatively impacted hummingbird migration. Due to warming temperatures, and recognizing these continual food sources, some hummingbirds have begun to stay near urban areas rather than migrate.
While development is a major problem, pesticide usage is as well. One of the most common pesticides this bird comes into contact with are neonicotinoids which are sprayed by farmers and home gardeners to thwart destructive insects and improve soil quality. When a hummingbird drinks nectar from a treated plant, the pesticide will coat their tongue and eventually absorb into their body. Depending on how much the hummingbird has consumed, it could be instantly fatal or slowly destroy their memory making it – among other things – harder for them to remember where to find food sources.
This pesticide class also kills insects, such as aphids, gnats, and mosquitoes, that are an important part of a hummingbird’s daily meals. Insects make up about 80% of a hummingbird’s diet and provide them with protein so they have the energy to fly. If an insect touches the pesticide and then is caught by the hummingbird, the chemicals will enter the bird’s body regardless if it flew near the toxins itself.
To protect declining pollinators from these toxins, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA announced in early 2020 that some neonicotinoids, such as dinotefuran and thiamethoxam, would have strict restrictions on when and where they can be used. While still a long way from being fully eliminated, it’s a step in the right direction to help protect these important creatures.
The hummingbird has also lost much of its habitat and food sources to invasive plant species. With rising temperatures caused by climate change, invasive plants thrive on the extra nitrogen and carbon dioxide allowing them to smother local plants.
One invasive species that is causing significant problems is the Yellow Toadflax which is native to Eurasia but has spread throughout North America. This weed is notorious for choking native plants by sucking up available water causing them to shrivel and die. This makes it harder for the hummingbird to find native plants to feed on and pollinate. When a hummingbird feeds on its vibrant yellow flowers, the seeds will cling to their beak allowing them to unknowingly spread its seeds.
The critically endangered Juan Fernández Firecrown is a rare hummingbird found only on Chile’s Robinson Crusoe island. Known for its orange-tinted feathers, this hummingbird now has difficulty finding a proper habitat due to the growth of invasive plants on the island, such as blackberry shrubs, that make it harder for nourishing vegetation to grow. While it continues to be a serious issue, numerous organizations have dedicated themselves to preserving the island’s natural flora by eliminating invasive plants and creating a native plant seed bank.
Despite the many challenges that plague this incredible pollinator, the rapidly growing public recognition of the hummingbird’s importance is a hopeful indicator that humans can alter their behavior to happily co-exist with these and other species.
Rachel Kester for Times Media Mexico