Hawaii is set apart from the rest of the United States in more ways than one. These tropical islands have an ecology and environment entirely distinct from the rest of the country.
Many of the species found in every other state cannot be found here. And conversely, there are many species here that are not found anywhere else in the US.
What Hummingbirds are Seen in Hawaii?
Hawaii is a paradise for birdwatchers. But if you are looking for hummingbirds here, you will soon discover that there are none to be found.
Hummingbirds do live on other islands – and have been known to make sea crossings. But none has made it to this more isolated archipelago. Hawaii is simply too far from the hummingbird migration paths and has its own distinct birdlife.
Why Aren’t There Hummingbirds in Hawaii?
Hawaii is 2,000 miles from the United States mainland and the only state outside North America where hummingbird species are found. It is an isolated group of volcanic islands which are part of the Polynesian subregion of Oceania.
The region’s isolation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for species to make the trip from the mainland to these islands. Hummingbirds simply have not been able to make the trip.
Why Hummingbirds Are Banned in Hawaii?
In the past, certain species have been deliberately introduced to Hawaii. But hummingbirds are not one of them.
In the rest of the US, we can see the ecological benefits of pollination that hummingbirds bring. So you may wonder why hummingbirds were never introduced to these islands.
The truth is that Hawaii has had and continues to have significant problems with the introduction of non-native species.
When species have been introduced, they have disturbed and disrupted the islands’ ecology, causing major problems with the natural balance of the flora and fauna found here.
Introductions of non-native birds and other non-native plants and animal species pose a significant threat to the endemic wildlife and plant life of the islands of Hawaii.
Unfortunately, many endemic species are endangered, and Hawaii has lost a higher percentage of its endemic species than any other US state.
Introductions can also threaten the livelihood of island residents and food production.
One other reason why hummingbirds are not allowed to be introduced is that, as pollinators, they can cause issues for pineapple growers and the production of certain other cash crops.
As hummingbirds feed on the nectar from plants, they pollinate them. In some instances, this can, of course, be beneficial. However, outside their native ranges, the introduction of foreign pollinators can cause problems.
For instance, for pineapple growers in Hawaii, the issue would be that cross-pollination would make it a challenge to grow the preferred seedless pineapple varieties.
Other Pollinators in Hawaii Like Hummingbirds
Interestingly, though there are no hummingbirds in Hawaii, there are other pollinators that resemble hummingbirds and fill similar ecological niches within this environment.
The hummingbird moth is one pollinating species in Hawaii with a strong resemblance to hummingbirds. These moths look so much like birds that they can be mistaken for hummingbirds at first sight.
These moths, not to be confused with those in the Hemaris genus sometimes seen in North America, are an introduced species in Hawaii – Macroglossum pyrrhosticta – typically found in East Asia.
In Hawaii, the adults are on the wing between April and August and can be seen flitting from flower to flower, feeding on nectar. Their wingspan is typically between 42 and 56 millimeters.
So if you think that you see a hummingbird in Hawaii, it is most likely the moth that caught your eye.
This group of little passerine birds is believed to belong to the finch family. However, though not related to the hummingbirds seen in the rest of the United States, it resembles them because it has adapted to the environment and feeds on nectar from flowers.
Hawaiian honeycreepers are believed to have arrived on the Hawaiian islands between 5.7 and 7.2 million years ago – around the same time the islands of Ni’ihau and Kauai formed.
Since then, the birds have evolved within this unique island environment, alongside the native plant species from which they feed. Different characteristics developed, and many species evolved in adaptation to the conditions on the various islands over time.
The ancestral finch species evolved to fill several ecological niches. This led to a wide variety of bill shapes to allow for pollination and nectar-feeding from a range of plants.
Sadly, 20 or so species of Hawaiian honeycreeper have become extinct in the recent past, and many more through human activity in earlier times. Many have been lost due to livestock introduction to the islands and the conversion of native habitats to agricultural land.
One particularly hummingbird-like honeycreeper was the Hawai’i akialoa, H. obscurus, which disappeared from Hawaii around 1940.
Truly, hummingbird-like species are extinct, but one finch-like form that is somewhat like a hummingbird does remain: The I’Iwi, or scarlet honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea.
The scarlet honeycreeper is a highly recognizable symbol of Hawaii. It is the third most common native land bird on the islands. It is primarily scarlet, with black wings and tail and a long, curved bill that allows it to sup nectar from native flowers.
90% or so of the honeycreeper population now resides in a narrow band of forested land on East Maui and the mesic forests of the windward slopes of Hawaii, between 4,265 and 6,234 feet in elevation.
Like hummingbirds in the mainland United States, scarlet honeycreepers do migrate. But they are altitudinal migrants.
Rather than flying large geographical distances, they move to higher elevations as flowers bloom throughout the year. Those on Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island, are also believed to make daily trips to lower areas to feed on nectar.
The species has lost much of its range and was listed as ‘threatened’ by the United States Department of the Interior in 2017.
Helping Native Pollinators in Hawaii
Native ecosystems on these islands rely on the pollination services of native birds, particularly the honeycreepers mentioned above, and insects, namely yellow-faced bees, but also flies and other insects.
If you live in Hawaii, you can give native wildlife a helping hand by choosing to grow native plants.
Natives such as Naupaka, Akulikuli, Akoko, Ohai, Naio, and Ilima are great for yellow-faced bees, for example. And consider planting Lobelia grayana, ko’oko’olau, ko’oloa ‘ula, ‘o ̄ lapa, and the Ohia tree for I’Iwi, to name a few beneficial plants.
Avoiding non-native species and choosing native plants for a Hawaii garden is one vital way to help conserve endemic species and halt biodiversity losses on these islands.
You won’t see hummingbirds in Hawaii, but you will encounter many other incredible species.