Feeder relief for Arizona’s fire-stricken hummingbirds

July 27, 2011

In a year that started with six of southeastern Arizona’s driest months on record, wildfires have burned nearly a million acres of mountain forests in the state. Though fire is an integral part of this western ecosystem, the burned areas are so large this year that the region’s incredible diversity of hummingbirds may be short of food in the next few months, some people worry. But there may be a few small ways for interested birders to help.

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The fires are out now, thanks to the arrival of the late-summer monsoons. But over large areas, burned forests now offer much less understory and fewer hummingbird flowers. In what looks like a direct result of missing natural food sources, hummingbirds are being seen in unusually high numbers around towns, according to Sheri Williamson, director of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) in Bisbee, Arizona. As we talked, she said, her feeder garden was a chaos of Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

“We might not be able to help warblers, flycatchers, birds of prey, and bears and things like that,” Williamson said. “But we can help hummingbirds.” She encourages locals to put out extra feeders and has secured a grant from Kaytee to give away hummingbird feeding kits to people who want to help. (Kaytee is a sponsor of the Cornell Lab.)

“There have been huge influxes of birds to feeding stations,” Williamson said. “Broad-billed Hummingbirds normally nest up in the foothill canyons. They normally do not occur in large numbers along the San Pedro River, but we have had many, many broad-bills. We’re even seeing Magnificent Hummingbirds in the outskirts of Sierra Vista, and they are a mountain hummingbird—they want to be in pine-oak woodland,” at least a thousand feet higher up.

Williamson said she’s not worried about the long-term prospects of the hummingbirds—the forest and its understory will recover. “But we are coming into peak hummingbird migration season in the next few weeks,” she said. “I’ve got a yard full of Rufous Hummingbirds right now and it’s only going to get worse.” She noted that she has seven hummingbird feeders in her yard—about three times the number she usually has this time of year.

Southeastern Arizona has a spectacular assortment of hummingbirds—as many as 14 species have been seen in a single day. From now until early October, the breeding species will be joined by thousands of migrating Rufous, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. During past drought years, Williamson said the observatory’s banding data suggest some migrants alter their route to find greener land. “But with a [more localized] problem like a fire,” she said, “a lot of birds are just going to arrive on their normal stopover sites and find them uninhabitable.”

Williamson has a few suggestions for people who want to help ease the burden on hummingbirds:

  • Locals who don’t presently feed hummingbirds can start feeding them, and people who already do can add feeders for the next few months
  • Through the grant from Kaytee, SABO will be giving away up to $50,000 worth of hummingbird feeders and an electrolyte-enhanced hummingbird food at farmers markets and banding demonstrations. Check the SABO news page for giveaway dates and locations
  • People who aren’t in southeastern Arizona but want to help will soon be able to sponsor a Kaytee kit giveaway by purchasing the package, for a reduced price, via Amazon. Check Kaytee’s Arizona Hummingbird Disaster Relief site for details
  • Donations to the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, via their website, will help them in their work
  • People can still attend the Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival next week (August 3–7) in Sierra Vista, Arizona, where they can learn more about the fires and still have great birding opportunities while supporting local businesses
  • Coloradoans, Utahans, and others who live farther north along migration routes could try supplying more hummingbird food than usual. “Feed those birds well so they’re nice and fat when they take off,” Williamson said, “Maybe that’ll give them a little bit of a cushion.”

As severe as the fires have been, Williamson stresses that the forests would be worse off without the periodic burns that they evolved with every 6 to 10 years. This year’s fires are especially severe because of the region’s long drought and a buildup of fuel that comes, paradoxically, from decades spent trying to put out fires as soon as they started.

“Things rot where you live [in the East],” she told me. “Things don’t rot here. It takes fire to recycle a lot of our dead plant material. It still is an emotional thing to see a 200-year-old alligator juniper go up like a match. Things are going to eventually be much better for hummingbirds than they have been. But for a while—weeks, months, maybe a couple of years—things are going to be hard.”

Images courtesy Sheri Williamson/Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory.


  • robinsegg

    Great to see this effort. The Rufous are passing through Northern Utah now so it won’t be long before they show up at the Arizona feeders.

  • Glad to see that Sheri took the initiative to do all she could to help our hummers continue on their way by acquiring that grant from Kaytee and provide more feeders for these wonderful birds. We miss her on the forum but know that she keeps a very busy schedule.

  • Thank goodness for this relief effort. We will do our best to help spread the word.

  • This is an important collaborative effort to support the hummingbird poplulation resident and migrating through this important gateway. The San Pedro River is the core avian highway affording food, shelter, water to migrating birds. The destruction of so much natural habitat in our mountain canyons from the Monument and Horseshoe fires in SE Arizona has created an opportunity for this important collaboration in support of the 14 to 15 species of hummingbirds that flow through this area in huge numbers. Thanks to all the contributers and sponsors for their vision and energy in making this work! Casa de San Pedro B&B, Hereford, AZ

  • Chris McCreedy

    Seed feeding (resulting in cowbird subsidization) is much too common in southeastern Arizona – at bed and breakfasts, the San Pedro House, residences, etc. I hope that the Southeastern Bird Observatory adds a note to NOT increase seed feeding. The birds will overcome the burns, but if a note like this encourages residents to subsidize cowbirds as well as hummingbirds, that behavior can persist for many more years.

  • Excellent points. Here in the high mountains of Colorado (Keystone) for our annual summer getaway from Tucson, hummingbird numbers are down but picking up, with many Rufous and Broad-tailed feeding heavily on their way south. Calliopes are few, but hopefully will increase into August. The number of HB feeders hanging on condo decks is higher than ever.

  • Mario Olmos

    I just returned from helping Sheri and her husband Tom to coordinate distribution centers for feeders and food in Sierra Vista, Huachuca and Chiricahua. Hummingbirds are definitely looking for food at feeders. There are reports of Magnificent hummingbird down by the SanPedro river. At Ramsey Canyon we had 9 species and at least 100 birds in 7 feeders (More than usual). It was impressing to see 5 males Blue-Throated together with Calliopes, Violet-crowned, White-eared,
    Broad-Billed, Broad-tailed, Rufous, Magnificent and Anna’s.
    It is sad to see how much hummingbird habitat was burned.

  • Chris, your point is well taken, but there are ways to feed seed-eating birds that are less encouraging to cowbirds. It’s all about offering a menu appropriate to the more desirable clientele.

    For normal spring/summer feeding in our own yard, we discourage cowbirds by cutting way back on smaller grains (millet and milo, primarily) and concentrating on black oil sunflower, nyjer, peanut butter dough, and fruit. This year’s record-breaking drought caused us to moderate this seasonal change somewhat, figuring that it was better to feed an occasional cowbird than watch our Black-throated Sparrows and Gambel’s Quail chicks starve to death or keep the White-crowned Sparrows from migrating.

    Unfortunately, cowbird populations are likely to increase in southeastern Arizona no matter what we do, since the fires converted previously forested areas into the open spaces they prefer. This is farm and ranch country, so there will always be plenty of food for cowbirds, but modifying the summer bird-feeding menu can help keep bird feeding from adding to the problem.

  • Feeding birds or any other wild animal from a vacation home or any residence where you intend to stay for only days or weeks rather than years is a bad idea. Animals develop habits when it comes to searching for food, and those habits are often passed down to future generations. If they are accustomed to a food source that is taken away, in this case because you go back to your permanent home, they have to begin a new search for food. This involves risks since they must venture into unfamiliar territory and possibly into the path of predators and other dangers. The risk is especially high if the animal is endangered, rather at the species or local population level. In the case of the Arizona humming birds, they do not have an alternative food source, and even if they did, Arizona is an especially fragile ecosystem in which the smallest change can have devastating consequences. It is important that the hummingbirds survive in order to sustain Arizona’s ecosystem, so feed them if you like, but on behalf of the hummingbirds and the entire ecosystem that cannot speak for itself, I would like to urge you to commit to feeding them consistently.

  • My family loves feeding these little Arizona humming birds. We have 3 & 4 at one time fighting over the feeder. Our 95 year old neighbor thinks they are all black.

  • zack

    im glad people help them

  • Amber

    The hummingbird is so fun to watch