Monarchs – often called the king of butterflies – are bowing down to Mother Nature in a big-time way this year: blame the harsh winter and other factors for their numbers perhaps being down as much as 50 percent, says a Texas A&M University professor. Hummingbirds, however, are faring well, notes another Texas A&M researcher.
Craig Wilson, a senior research associate in the Center for Mathematics and Science Education and a butterfly enthusiast, says that a combination of heavy rains, much colder than normal temperatures and illegal logging in Mexico have proved to be a double whammy for the beautiful insects, who normally number in the tens of millions as they fly through Texas on their annual migration routes to Canada.
“The Monarchs were hit hard by strong storms in their winter homes in Mexico,” Wilson explains.
“One study already shows that the population flying northward is expected to be the smallest since the Mexican overwintering colonies were discovered in 1975, meaning we could easily have losses of 50 to maybe 60 percent of the Monarchs.”
Torrential rains and flooding near the Monarch reserves of Michoacan State in Mexico last month killed 40 civilians, but also devastated the Monarch butterfly population. The areas in Mexico where the Monarchs spend the winter and mate before heading north often contain 50 million butterflies within 10 roosting locations that cover a total of only 12 acres.
“But you have to remember that the population was already low because of unfavorable conditions last summer, too,” Wilson says.
“Add to that a lot of illegal logging in the regions where they breed, and the Monarchs have faced very stressful conditions. The loggers in those regions of Mexico cut down trees, and there’s nothing to hold back the mud during heavy rains, so the Monarchs eventually suffer.”
During their migration, Monarchs get about 70 percent of their food supply while flying their routes through Texas and succeeding generations eventually fly the 1,500 miles north to Canada.
Besides Monarchs, Texans can see Swallowtails, Skippers, Blues, Metal Marks, White and Sulphurs, Wilson notes. “There are about 450 different butterflies and over 550 types of moths that visit Texas, so there are still quite a few to be seen,” he adds.
Hummingbirds, however, are doing quite well, says Ian Tizard, a bird specialist in Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “I have seen nothing to indicate their numbers are down, and many have already been sighted in the area,” Tizard notes.
Like Monarchs, hummingbirds – called hummers by bird lovers – frequently travel to Canada, often a 2,000-mile trip from their homes in Central America and Mexico.
They are considered among the most fascinating of all birds because of their at-times peculiar behavior, but don’t count on making pets out of them – as with many wild birds, it is unlawful to keep hummingbirds as pets. But they can still be admired and observed, and hummingbird feeders are a good way to do both, Tizard notes.
Tizard says the type of hummingbird you’ll see in Texas depends on where you live. East of Interstate 35, residents will most likely see the Ruby Throated hummer, while those west of I-35 will probably see the Black Chinned hummer. “Austin-area residents can see both,” he says.
In South Texas, the Buff Bellied hummingbird is common, and in West Texas the aptly named Blue Throated and Magnificent hummingbirds are seen more frequently.
Many people install hummingbird feeders to attract the birds, and hummingbirds will thank you for doing so: their rapid metabolism requires them to eat constantly.
“Hummingbirds can have a wingbeat rate as high as 80 per second, although the normal rate is about 50 or so when flying,” Tizard reports. “And their heartbeat rate has been recorded as high as 1,260 beats per minute. With all of that movement, they need a lot of nourishment.”
Most hummers consume about one-half of their body weight in sugar each day, he adds. “The substance in feeders is sugared water, and the best mix is about one cup of sugar for every four cups of water. Don’t use red dyes and also do not use honey,” he warns.
Tizard says it’s best to space several feeders apart from each other. The reason: hummingbirds will eagerly go four or five rounds against each other for a food source.
“They are extremely territorial, especially the males,” Tizard adds.
“Hummingbirds are known for fighting among themselves for food. That’s why it’s best to have more than one feeder out. A tree is an ideal place because hummingbirds will get a drink, fly away for a few seconds, and almost surely return.”
Tizard says hummers must have solid food besides the quick sugar fix they get from feeders. Unlike other birds, they will not eat birdseed but prefer tiny insects. “Their rapid movement requires that they eat almost constantly,” adds Tizard. “If they don’t, they can easily starve to death.”
Although hummingbirds give people a natural entertainment show, the tiny birds do have some enemies. They include owls, hawks, cats, lizards, snakes and even praying mantises and spiders.
Hummingbirds can live up to 10 years and the tiny birds are pure hunks when it comes to muscle and endurance, migrating thousands of miles each year searching for flowers and food. They’ve been clocked at 30 miles per hour, but it’s suspected they can fly at least 50 mph, Tizard says. In the air, they maneuver like no other birds – they can fly forward and backward, shift to either side and stop in mid-air. Hummers do have very weak feet and rarely walk, Tizard adds.
They have a chirping sound that is not often heard. “When they get excited, they do make chirping sounds,” Tizard explains. “But like the bird itself, it’s a tiny sound not easily heard.”
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