On a recent family camping trip in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, we stopped for breakfast and coffee on the side of Route 6, the two-lane thoroughfare that runs along much of Cape Cod. Even early on the Saturday morning of July 4th weekend, cars were whizzing by just a few yards from our picnic table. Suddenly, a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird appeared at a flowerpot not two feet from me. I could see the individual iridescent feathers comprising this adult male’s gorgeous and unmistakable ruby throat. Had I not seen it up close first, I might have mistaken it for a bumblebee as it buzzed off into the sky.
Hummingbirds, known affectionately by some birders as “hummers,” are nothing short of amazing. They burst at the seams with energy. Their heart rate maxes out at 1,260 beats per minute; when hovering, their wings can beat up to 5,400 times per minute. Many birds have elaborate courtship rituals, but few rival the daredevil male Anna’s Hummingbird. Once he has caught the female’s attention by flashing his brilliant pink head, he ascends up to 130 feet before dive-bombing the ground at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour, coming upright at the last second to further impress the female with the sound of air rushing through his tail feather “brakes.”
These zippy flyers undertake epic journeys each spring and fall as they travel back and forth between their breeding and wintering grounds. The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, our sole but beloved hummingbird species east of the Mississippi River, crosses the Gulf of Mexico in an uninterrupted 20-hour flight in spring. In late summer, the Rufous Hummingbird embarks on the longest migration of any hummer – almost 4,000 miles – from Alaska to Mexico. To power all their activity, hummingbirds consume half their weight in nectar and insects from as many as 2,000 visits to individual flowers every day. Hummingbirds use a remarkable memory rivaling an elephant’s to visit the same feeders on their migration route each year.
Especially on the West Coast, backyard feeders are getting fewer visits than in the past because, like so many pollinators, hummingbird populations are threatened by habitat loss and other environmental factors. The Rufous Hummingbird population declined by about two-thirds from 1966 to 2019; the worldwide count of Allen’s Hummingbirds dropped by 80% over a similar timeframe (1968-2019).
It doesn’t take much to help these minuscule feathered friends. Adding native nectar-bearing plants to your garden will provide more food for hummingbirds. The bright red Cardinal Flower, for example, is a hummingbird favorite found across much of the United States that has evolved to optimize hummingbird pollen transfer. When the hummer comes near to sip nectar, some pollen will rub onto its head and bill so that it can pollinate the next bloom it visits.
While urban areas typically offer less green space, that’s where additional pollinator-friendly plants are needed most. Even a flowerpot or two can help string together larger green spaces and contribute to a safe and bountiful migration corridor.
If you already have pollinator-friendly plants, make sure that they provide the maximum benefit by avoiding pesticide use. Even low exposure to one neonic pesticide reduces hummingbird metabolism, which could interfere with energetically costly courtship behaviors (like the Anna’s Hummingbird dive-bomb) and make it more difficult for these super-active nectar sippers to sustain themselves.
But why hummingbirds? When so many species need our help due to climate change and habitat loss, why should they get our attention? After all, they’re not our most important pollinators: bees are similarly threatened and play a critical role in our global food system.
It’s hard to look away from any hummingbird, especially one that shows up in an unexpected place like the side of Route 6, and we have a part to play in that enchantment. As summer turns to fall, these jewels of the sky will be zooming from blossom to blossom and searching for the nectar they need to power their journeys. Planting more flowers is the best way to welcome their light and pass it on.
Policy Associate, Frontier Group
Louis works on zero waste and public health as a Policy Associate with Frontier Group. After graduating from Yale with a B.A. in music in 2022, he joined U.S. PIRG’s public health team and campaigned to reduce antibiotic overuse in U.S. meat production and improve indoor air quality in schools nationwide. Based in Charlottesville, VA, he enjoys birding, choral singing (especially Dvořák) and watching his hometown Boston Red Sox.