Hawaii has a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. Despite that, you won’t find any hummingbirds among the over 300 bird species who call these islands home. Given Hawaii’s abundance of lush tropical landscapes that hummingbirds seem to thrive in, this absence may seem odd at first. So, why are hummingbirds missing from Hawaii’s bird club — and why has the island state banned them from ever joining? Read on to find out!
Have There Ever Been Hummingbirds in Hawaii?
Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) are a family of over 360 small, colorful nectarivores native only to the continental Americas and the Caribbean. Some species, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, are migratory. As such, they can travel long distances from north to south as well as to nearby islands. However, none have ever migrated east or west across the Atlantic or Pacific to colonize other continents or distant islands. This includes the Hawaiian Islands, an isolated chain in the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles away from any hummingbird homeland.
Why Can’t Hummingbirds Enter Hawaii Now?
Hawaii’s volcanic origins and geographic isolation allowed for a unique assemblage of native species to evolve over 70 million years. Many of these species are endemic, and thus, found nowhere else on the planet. However, people did eventually find their way to these remote islands. With that, both the initial Polynesian and later European waves of human colonization brought other species along with them. These species introductions were both intentional (e.g., crops and livestock) and unintentional (e.g., rodents).
The spread of non-native species disrupted the balance of these insular ecosystems. As such, many native species subsequently became endangered or went extinct. In order to help combat further biodiversity loss, Hawaii now strictly regulates non-native species import. That includes the ban on importing hummingbirds. However, in their particular case, the ban is actually in place for two reasons. The banning of hummingbirds in Hawaii is to protect both Hawaii’s native species and its commercial agriculture.
How Could Introducing Hummingbirds Harm Hawaii’s Native Species?
In the absence of hummingbirds, who are nectar-eating and flower-pollinating specialists, other birds evolved to fill a similar niche on the Hawaiian islands. These include the nectarivorous species of Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae). A once diverse radiation of birds, Hawaii’s iconic honeycreepers are unfortunately now disappearing. In fact, 40 of the 58 known species are now presumed extinct. If hummingbirds invaded Hawaii and successfully established their own populations, they could compete with already imperiled native nectarivore species, such as these honeycreepers, for food and habitat. Furthermore, it is possible that introduced hummingbirds could carry diseases such as the West Nile virus and avian influenza, which they could then spread to other birds.
In short, introducing non-native hummingbirds to Hawaii could precipitate further endangerment and extinction of the state’s own dwindling native bird populations.
How Could Introducting Hummingbirds Harm Hawaii’s Commercial Agriculture?
While pineapples have a close association with Hawaii today, these plants are actually not native to the islands. Rather, they were first imported for cultivation by European settlers, and they subsequently became a major agricultural crop. They are, in fact, indigenous to South America, an area that also happens to be rich in hummingbird biodiversity! As it turns out, hummingbirds are indeed one of the primary pollinators of pineapples in their shared native range. And, if given the chance, hummingbirds would likely pollinate Hawaii’s pineapples too.
So then, why wouldn’t Hawaii welcome these birds into their state to help with crop pollination? As it turns out, commercial pineapple growers generally don’t want their plants naturally pollinated! Why not? Well, this causes the fruit to produce hard seeds, which are difficult to germinate and even tougher to eat. So instead, farmers usually reproduce these crops via propagation in order to produce the preferred seedless varieties that we buy at the grocery store.
While it may seem like Hawaii and hummingbirds are a natural fit together, unfortunately, this is not the case. The reality is that hummingbirds never made it on their own to the islands, and humans can’t bring them over now because of the potential threats to both native biodiversity and commercial agriculture. This means that if you want to enjoy hummingbirds in nature, you’ll just have to stick to their native range of the continental Americas and the Caribbean. On the other hand, Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can see another group of small colorful nectar-feeding birds, the Hawaiian honeycreepers!
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