Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Tracking Hummingbirds in Northern Mississippi

The small, rural town of Holly Springs, MS, where Strawberry Plains Audubon Center is located, lovingly embraces the hummingbird as our local mascot, with a hummingbird silhouette adorning the local water tower and serving as the marketing icon for Holly Springs Tourism. Stewart’s Eatery, a family-owned restaurant on the town square, proudly serves Hummingbird Cake, a dessert they claim “contains no whole hummingbirds, just the juice.” Folks love hummingbirds that much.

Given the amount of admiration for these birds, our office is inundated for a weeks every year with phone calls from distressed citizens declaring, “Where are my hummingbirds?” Though it is amusing that we humans claim ownership of birds that traverse a hemisphere twice a year, it does highlight the magnetism and charisma that surround these species. Most years, those calls arrive mid-summer, when people see a lull in feeder activity. Unaware that a hummingbird’s diet is 60-80 percent insects, they often don’t consider that nesting females limit their trips to feeders when they are out hunting for insects to feed nestlings. This year, however, those phone calls arrived much earlier in the season and with increasing anxiety. From late March through early May, distressed individuals have continually asked if some catastrophe has taken place during migration, given the low number of hummingbirds seen at their feeders, in light of previous years and numbers. While we don’t want to cause anxiety, we truthfully confide to them that even the numbers in our native hummingbird gardens at Strawberry Plains are demonstrably low.

It is common lore in north Mississippi that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) begin arriving en masse when the Red Buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) bloom. This is one of a myriad of ancient relationships amid the synchronistic timing of hummingbird species’ arrivals and native floral bloom periods across the country. Yet, coming off of an exceptionally mild winter in Mississippi that finished with close-to record rainfall this February and March, our native flora have veered from the phenological calendar, including Red Buckeye, which bloomed weeks early. To add to the confusion, our first hummingbirds were spotted two to three weeks after their historic arrival period.

While these variations alone are not cause for alarm, they are representative of a larger uncertainty and the decreasing predictability of seasonal timings within our natural landscapes. Despite our familiarity with hummingbirds at Strawberry Plains, we don’t pretend to have an answer for the numerous individuals that have called this spring in concern. However, we do tell them that they as hummingbird lovers and observant wildlife watchers can contribute to a solution by participating in Audubon’s Hummingbirds At Home. As concerned citizens, the documentation of a dramatic dip in their hummingbird numbers is significant, just as are a concurrent and dramatic increase in hummingbird numbers of an observer in a separate locality. One of the benefits of citizen science is that the absence of a common phenological occurrence can prove to be as important than noting its presence. Or, to put it bluntly, daily observations have significant value.  

If the peak bloom periods of Red Buckeye in north Mississippi and Crimson Columbine in central Colorado continue occurring before the arrival of Ruby-throated and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, our tired migrants will need another initial nectar source. Though there is great concern around how climate change will impact hummingbird species, it is fortunate we find them so enchanting and that they return the admiration right outside our windows. As citizens, we have the opportunity to turn our admiration into action. By documenting not only where and when our hummingbirds are feeding, but also what nectar sources are being used throughout the breeding season, we can collectively capture the gradual transitions taking place for our local hummingbirds.

Given their seasonal abundance in Holly Springs, we may joke of using hummingbirds in our local cuisines. However, it is Strawberry Plains’ earnest hope that this same affinity continues to inform Audubon’s emerging knowledge about the shifting patterns in our hummingbird’s life cycles.

For more information on Strawberry Plains Audubon Center and the Hummingbird Migration & Nature Celebration, visit http://strawberryplains.audubon.org

Tell us about your feeding hummingbirds by participating in Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home.

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