Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Plight of monarchs; hummingbirds' flight


Q: I love your column. I saw what you wrote about monarchs, and I know their Mexican breeding grounds are under steady loss through development. I have a butterfly friendly garden, yet I saw not one single monarch last summer. Is there a general decline here or was I just unlucky?

I keep tabs on the ruby-throated hummingbird's migration progress. I see many all summer in my garden and at the feeder. Tiny, noisy and territorial — I love them!

I want to put out my feeder shortly before they arrive. Jody Soules, of Wild Bird Country Store in Great Barrington, helps with a link on her FaceBook page:

Have you already mentioned the migration in a column? I want everybody to put out a feeder when they're closer! Such a long trip for a tiny bird.

— Gail, West Stockbridge, Mass.

A: One of the most difficult aspects of writing a column for some 37 years is less remembering what I have and have not written about, but how recently.

In this case, I do recall answering a question about when to put sugar-water feeders out for the hummingbirds and suggested by late April or the beginning of May. However, considering one stray was seen in Falmouth, Mass., (on Cape Cod), on March 31, we may change our suggestion to mid-April in the Berkshires and the Shires of Vermont. Of course, the wintery weather in the Northeast last week, and inclement conditions elsewhere along their eastern migration route, may just detain the adventurous males somewhat.

Another hummingbird map tracking their migration that I follow is

Of course, these sites rely on reports forwarded by regular folk interested in birds. At the time I write this week's Naturewatch (April 4), the majority of ruby-throated hummingbird migrants are stalled just south of Pennsylvania.

As for monarch butterflies, they are taking a beating not only in their wintering grounds, but also here during spring, summer and fall from insecticides and loss of prime habitat.

And, come to think of it, you are not alone. I did not see a single monarch in our flower gardens last summer.

A story in the Hartford Courant reports, "Last year, we saw zero monarch butterflies," Jay Kaplan, director of the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton [Conn.], said of an annual butterfly survey done in the Farmington River Valley. "It was the first time since we started doing the count [more than 20 years ago] that we had zero monarchs."

The eastern monarch butterfly population in North America plunged by 84 percent between the winter of 1996-97 and the winter of 2014-15, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports. News Week reports a decline of 90 percent over the past 20 years.

We blame the depredation of the butterfly's wintering grounds in Mexico on pesticides. They are only part of the story, as GMO crops and, yes, climate change are also contributing, according to scientists.

The Huffington Press recently carried a story from the Canadian Press, "The dramatic decline in the monarch butterfly population in eastern North America is due largely to the steady loss of milkweed crops in U.S. breeding grounds, according to a new study that researchers say provides the first proof of the critical connection."

As time marches on, we will learn of additional reasons contributing to the loss of monarch populations.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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