The answer to whether hummingbirds are territorial may surprise you.
Some hummingbirds aren’t territorial at all.
But most hummingbirds are territorial, and some defend a larger territory than others.
Hunger Forces Most Hummingbirds to Defend Their Territories
Most of the world’s hummingbirds don’t live in sunny southern California. They don’t have access to feeders that are kept full 24/7/365.
Most hummingbirds are in constant danger of starvation. The reason for this is the hummingbird’s amazingly fast metabolism.
A hummingbird’s heart may beat as much as 1250 times a minute. It may breathe 250 times a minute even when it is resting.
Every fall, North American hummingbirds that spend the winter in Mexico or Central America must somehow store enough body fat to give them fuel to fly 600 miles (about 1000 km) non-stop over the Gulf of America.
Running out of “fuel” over the Gulf of Mexico is fatal.
Hummingbirds that spend the summer in Canada may travel as far as 2000 miles (3200 km) to get to their winter homes.
Then these intrepid birds have to store body fat all over again to make the return flight.
They have to gain about 13% of their body weight every day for several days to have energy for the flight.
That’s like a 160-pound human having to gain 20 pounds a day, every day for most of a week.
Even to survive the night, a hummingbird has to consume enough nectar during the day to store some body fat, or it will enter a state of “torpor” in which its metabolism shuts down.
Even though hummingbirds are tiny — a hummingbird weighs only a little more than a U.S. penny (2.5 grams, less than 1/10 of an ounce) — they have enormous appetites for nectar and insects.
For most hummingbirds, there just isn’t enough food for every bird to survive.
Scientists have confirmed that even the pampered populations of Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds lose 96% of every year’s hatchlings to starvation and predators. Territoriality is essential to survival.
How Hummingbirds Defend Their Ground
Hummingbirds defend their territory to protect their sources of food against other birds.
But they have to do it in ways that don’t cost them more calories than they protect.
Male hummingbirds “stake a claim” to territory by diving at other birds.
Males arrive first during the spring migration.
They look for large banks of flowers where they hope a female willing to mate with them will arrive a few days later.
To assert exclusive rights to a territory with lots of flowers, they will strafe other male hummingbirds by diving to the ground at high speeds, pulling up just before hitting the other bird.
Unlike a mating dive, dives for defending territory are usually accompanied by a loud whistle, not just a fluttering of the wings.
For most hummingbirds, the automatic response to an intruder is to try to chase them away.
Chasing another bird away usually avoids a fight. The plucky little hummingbird may try this tactic with much larger birds.
If the intruder bird doesn’t come back, the hummingbird can go back to feeding as fast as it can to maintain its incredibly high metabolism.
However, when chasing doesn’t work, hummingbirds face serious calorie deficits.
They have to find even more food to make up for both the competition and the energy spent trying to chase the intruder away.
Sometimes hummingbirds won’t try to chase intruders away. They will register their protest with a squawky-sounding chirp, and keep on feeding.
This is the strategy hummingbirds use when they have found a high-energy food source, like a full feeder or a row of nectar-rich flowers.
They won’t stop feeding long enough to drive another hummingbird off. They will just chirp “Hey, this is mine!” and get all the nectar they can while it is still available.
Hummingbirds don’t actually spend all day fluttering in front of flowers and feeders searching for food.
They spend much of their day perched nearby their food sources, hiding in the leaves, waiting to chase off competing birds.
We only have figures for tropical hummingbirds. But scientists observing Amazon rainforest hummingbirds found that they spend about 10 hours a day just perched in a tree, waiting for intruders.
They spent about two hours a day drinking nectar from flowers, 15 minutes a day chasing off other hummingbirds, and 5 to 10 minutes a day drinking water.
Other hummingbirds also spend most of their day perched undercover, waiting to take their next feeding.
This fact means that providing a sheltered, leafy location next to your hummingbird feeder keeps hummingbirds nearby, and gives you more opportunities to watch them.
Hummingbirds fight to defend their territory only as a last resort.
When hummingbirds fight, they lock claws. They use their beaks to try to harm their opponent.
Although most hummingbirds use their beaks as weapons, only one kind of hummingbird, the Long-Billed Hermit, has a beak designed for fighting. Its beak has a needle-like tip and a powerful overbite.
When hummingbirds square off to defend their territory, which bird will win?
Hummingbird experts recognize several factors that determine which bird will successfully defend its territory:
- Size. Smaller hummingbirds are forced to use stealth to approach food supplies. They fly from single flower to single flower to avoid potentially fatal conflicts. Having to spend a lot of energy flying keeps them small, and reduces the chances that they will survive migration.
- Beaks. Birds with longer beaks can access nectar and pollen in larger, cylindrical flowers. Female hummingbirds prefer to mate with males that have larger beaks, both for stronger babies,and for protection while sitting on the eggs in the nest.
- Overall health. A hummingbird defending its territory needs the strength to pull out of a dive at 60 miles per hour (nearly 100 kilometers per hour). Hummingbirds that don’t have the physical strength to dive and chase only have stealth strategies to compete for food.
What are stealth feeding strategies in hummingbirds?
Some smaller, weaker hummingbirds are marauders. They barge in or sneak into territories claimed by other hummingbirds.
Some smaller, weaker hummingbirds are known to ornithologists as trapliners.
They specialize in the flowers that other hummingbirds overlook.
They may fly long distances searching for flowers that are a perfect fit with their tongues and beaks.
Trapliners look for long, tubular flowers that are rich in nectar but not particularly numerous.
And some smaller, weaker hummingbirds are piercers. They poke holes in flowers that are too small for their tongues and beaks to drain out the nectar.
They escape detection by hummingbirds with longer beaks that usually feed on them.
Sometimes lots of hummingbirds gather in a single space without any obvious territoriality.
That’s usually because of a diversity in the sizes of their bills.
Hummingbirds with short bills may get along with hummingbirds with long bills because the long-billed hummingbirds can feed on flowers that the short-billed hummingbirds can’t.
Dealing With Hummingbird Territoriality in Your Backyard
What does territoriality have to do with keeping hummingbirds in your backyard?
There is a very simple rule:
Multiple, smaller feeders will attract more hummingbirds than a single, large feeder.
You will get more hummingbirds in your backyard if you maintain four tiny hummingbird feeders with just a single feeding port than if you fill one large hummingbird feeder with four feeding ports.
It also helps to plant a variety of flowers in your backyard. Plant some large, red, tubular flowers, like trumpet vine, red cardinal flower, chenille, and bee balm.
These flowers will attract trapliners, the hummingbirds that fly from plant to plant in search of large, deep flowers. You may not see the same hummingbird twice, but large, deep flowers will attract a variety of hummingbirds.
You should also plant flowers suitable for hummingbirds with shorter tongues. It’s not critical that these flowers should be red.
In fact, hummingbirds are more able to see green flowers than red flowers. Just have an abundance of flowers on which hummingbirds can feed.
Most experts advise that hummingbird feeders should be hung near cover so feeding birds can flee predators.
A better idea is to hang hummingbird feeders near at least two, and preferably three or more, areas of cover so the hummingbirds can keep watch over their feeders without seeing each other.
Accommodating territoriality enables more hummingbirds to stay in your yard. Giving each hummingbird its space gives you more hummingbirds to enjoy.
Laid-Back Hummingbirds in California Aren’t Territorial
There are two species of hummingbirds in California that have lost their territorial instincts over the last 50 years.
Allen’s hummingbird is a mild-mannered hummingbird that originated in the Channel Islands off the coast of California, near Los Angeles.
It’s not hard to recognize Allen’s hummingbirds.
The males have green feathers on their back with rust-colored red feathers on the rest of their bodies, except for a patch of iridescent red on their necks.
Females and immature Allen’s hummingbirds lack the glowing red patch on their necks.
The Allen’s hummingbirds on the Channel Islands found flowers and insects for feeding year-round, so they didn’t migrate.
This hummingbird is so well adapted to life in the Channel Islands that it has the scientific name “sedentarius.”
There was also a more aggressive colony of Allen’s hummingbirds that migrated with the seasons up and down the California coast.
In the 1960s, some of Allen’s hummingbirds on Santa Catalina Island were transported from Catalina Island to Los Angeles.
They found year-round feeding opportunities. They became important pollinators of monkeyflowers, snapdragons, and larkspurs.
The sedentarius subspecies of Allen’s hummingbird have spread throughout coastal southern California.
The sasin subspecies migrate as far east as Texas in the winter and as far north as southwestern Oregon in the summer.
Male Allen’s hummingbirds are territorial during mating season.
They fly back and forth frantically in a pattern like a pendulum across about 25 feet of their territory,
Then they will take a nose drive from about 100 feet in the air to make their tail feathers flutter to make sure they get the attention of the female.
During mating season, male Allen’s hummingbirds are so territorial that they will attack birds several times their size, including hawks and kestrels.
But the rest of the year, hummingbirds of the sedentarius subspecies are docile.
The other non-aggressive species in California is Anna’s hummingbird.
These birds originated around what is now Los Angeles, but they have learned to follow the feeders to expand their range as far south as Baja California and as far north as British Columbia.
They have established colonies around backyard feeders as far east as Albuquerque.
Anna’s hummingbirds put on a show for the humans that feed them.
When they see an insect they can eat, they open their mouths and zero in on it, flying at high speed, so it can’t escape.
They can shake their bodies more than 50 times a second to shake off rain or dirt.
The males also dive from 100 feet (30 meters) above the ground at 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) to make their feathers flutter to impress potential female mates.
Scientists at the University of California at Davis devised an ingenious experiment to test whether these hummingbirds are territorial when food is abundant.
They found a location where hummingbirds had protected habitat and had been fed 365 days a year from feeders that had been in place for 16 years.
They also found a protected location where they could put up new feeders.
The scientists used a gentle snare net to capture hummingbirds just long enough to attach RFID chips to their legs with eyelash glue.
Then they used RFID sensors to track return visits to the feeders.
The scientists discovered that these hummingbirds weren’t territorial except for males finding mates. Multiple hummingbirds frequently visited feeders at the same time.
The average visit of two or more hummingbirds at the same time at the same feeder was 11 seconds — which is a long time for a hummingbird.
Male hummingbirds visited feeders at the same time as other male hummingbirds more often than female hummingbirds visited at the same time as other female hummingbirds.
But when food is abundant, and there really isn’t anywhere else to go, Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds don’t make a fuss about territoriality.
Other species of hummingbirds in other locations, however, can be very territorial.
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