Hummingbirds seem to be beautiful, benign, benevolent little birds spending their days drinking nectar.
As the world’s smallest birds, weighing just a little more than a US penny, hummingbirds exude cuteness and adorability.
But not every culture has seen hummingbirds the way most of us do.
Some of the smallest hummingbirds are the most aggressive defenders of their territory.
Some larger hummingbirds with specialized diets are not aggressive at all.
But every hummingbird exerts the least effort possible to win a fight, to conserve the energy it needs to survive day by day.
Why Do Hummingbirds Become Aggressive
For most hummingbirds, aggressively defending their territory is their way to keep from starving.
Hummingbirds have some of the fastest metabolisms in the animal world.
The ruby-throated hummingbird most commonly seen in the United States flutters its wings between 1800 and 3600 times per minute as it hovers. A hummingbird’s heart can beat up to 1250 times a minute.
Hummingbirds may have to fly as much as 23 miles (37 km) a day between flowers and hummingbird feeders.
And some hummingbirds are capable of flying over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) twice a year during their migrations.
To power all that activity, a hummingbird needs to drink two to three times its weight in nectar every day.
Hummingbirds may visit between 1,000 and 2,000 flowers every day.
They consume an amount of sugar that would be comparable to a 200-pound (91 kg) human’s drinking around 1,100 cans of Coke or Pepsi every day.
Just to survive overnight, some hummingbirds have to enter a state called torpor, shutting down their metabolism and greatly reducing their heartbeat, to just 50 beats per minute.
When the sun comes up, and temperatures rise, the hummingbirds spring into action again.
But, as we’ll explore later in this article, well-fed and highly specialized hummingbirds don’t need to fight.
Why Do Hummingbirds Fight?
The territoriality of hummingbirds is powered by their extraordinary ability to remember the location and condition of flowers and feeders.
A hummingbird can remember up to 500,000 locations where it can find nectar.
A hummingbird can remember whether the nectar in a particular flower was watery or sweet.
It can remember how much nectar the flower held on its last visit and use that information to predict when it will be fullest for a future visit.
It can remember where flower buds were still opening the last time it flew by plant, and it can recall the order in which it visited flowers on an earlier day.
Hummingbirds can remember up to 500,000 locations to find nectar.
Male hummingbirds can also remember the comings and goings of up to 15 female hummingbirds they are attempting to woo with their acrobatic dives and mating calls.
They can remember where a female is likely to be feeding at flowers or a feeder, and when, so they are on hand to display their suitability for mating when she is present.
This extraordinary ability to remember gives both male and female hummingbirds up to 500,000 locations that they may stake out as “mine.”
Males may also remember everything about up to 15 backyards where they may fend off other males in order to claim a mate.
It’s male vs male hummingbird fighting that can become deadly.
How Do Hummingbirds Fight?
Male hummingbirds sometimes fight to the death over a potential mate. The usual means of defeating the opponent through the heart with the winning male’s long bill.
Some hummingbirds, like the Sword-Billed Hummingbird of South America, have bills that are up to 3 inches (110 mm) long.
Their bills can be up to 20 times longer than those of some of their opponents.
There are hummingbirds that have bills with serrated edges. These bills look like saws when viewed through a magnifying glass.
Some hummingbirds with a 90-degree hook, enabling the bird to stab its opponent from above.
Some hummingbirds have end with a tip like a dagger, and others have indentations that look like teeth.
There is even one hummingbird that has a bill lined with cutting edges that look like a shark’s teeth.
Bird scientists report that stabbing deaths in fights between hummingbirds are relatively rare, but plucked feathers are common.
Most often the victorious hummingbird manages to pluck feathers off the loser’s face.
Males defend five to fifteen locations where they dive and call to display themselves to females.
The females fly from the display sites to shop around for a mate. Females do not fight with other females to get a mate.
However, female hummingbirds will also defend their flowers against other hummingbirds of either sex and even bees.
Hummingbirds defend flowers by:
- Chasing other birds away. This strategy depends on the other bird’s not being willing to fight. The downside of chasing one hummingbird away is that another may slip in unnoticed during the chase.
- Chirping. Larger, stronger birds may make threatening noises at intruders to warn them of the possibility of a fight. This strategy doesn’t always work, but it allows the hummingbird making the claim to the flowers to continue feeding.
- Diving. Many male hummingbirds do a U-shaped power dive from as high as 100 feet (30 meters) at up to 60 miles an hour (100 km per hour) to impress potential mates among the females visiting their territory. They may also use this method to drive competitors away from flowers they consider theirs. Since a collision at 60 miles per hour could be fatal to both birds, sometimes the trespassing bird will just fly away. But since this method consumes a great deal of energy, the defending hummingbird can easily burn more calories than it is protecting.
- Vigilance. Hummingbirds that have discovered a feeder or a bank of flowers may spend six or eight hours a day perched on a nearby limb waiting for intruders to show up. They then dive, chase, chirp, or fight to protect their territory.
How to Keep Hummingbirds From Fighting in Your Backyard
Other species of hummingbirds get into fights over food sources, but there is a very simple way to prevent this in your own backyard:
Put up multiple, small hummingbird feeders. Don’t put up a single, large hummingbird feeder.
Many experts advise that backyard bird watchers will see more hummingbirds if they put up multiple feeders.
You will get more hummingbirds in your backyard if you maintain four tiny hummingbird feeders with just a single feeding port than if they put one large hummingbird feeder with four feeding ports.
It also helps to plant a variety of flowers in your backyard.
Plant some red flowers with tubular shapes for the trap liners, the hummingbirds that fly from plant to plant in search of large, deep flowers.
You may not see the same hummingbird twice, but you will attract a greater variety of hummingbirds.
Also, be sure to plant some smaller flowers suitable for hummingbirds with shorter tongues.
It’s not important that these flowers should be red. Hummingbirds have a better vision for green flowers than red flowers.
Just have multiple feeders in different corners of the yard and an abundance of flowers on which hummingbirds can feed.
When Hummingbirds Fight, the Bigger Bird Doesn’t Always Win
Hummingbird experts have identified several factors that determine which bird is really better off by fighting to defend its territory:
- Usefulness of the beak as a weapon: Hummingbirds with long, sharp beaks will win fights with other birds, but their long beaks make it difficult to feed on some flowers available to smaller birds. Long beaks and fights to the death are only beneficial when the bird is defending a stand of the right flowers.
- Size of the Hummingbird: Smaller hummingbirds lose fights, so they are forced to take a stealth approach to food supplies. They fly from flower to flower on different plants to avoid potentially fatal conflicts. They have to conserve energy because they are small, especially if their species migrates over long distances.
- Beak size: Hummingbirds with bigger beaks can access nectar and pollen in larger, cylindrical flowers. Female hummingbirds prefer to mate with males that have bigger beaks.
- Overall health: 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 larger, non-territorial hummingbirds are known to bird scientists as trapliners.
They specialize in 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 different species 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.
But sometimes hummingbirds give up their territorial impulses because they are exceptionally well cared for.
This is often true of Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds in California.
Why California Hummingbirds Often Aren’t Territorial
There is a mild-mannered hummingbird in Southern California that isn’t territorial.
Allen’s Hummingbird, which originated on Santa Catalina and the other Channel Islands off Los Angeles, is so laid back it has the scientific name sedentarius.
On Santa Catalina and the Channel Islands, flowers bloom all year and insects are abundant. There was no reason for Allen’s Hummingbirds to be territorial.
Then, in the 1960s, when Allen’s Hummingbirds spread to the mainland, they found so many year-round hummingbird feeders that they had no reason to be territorial there, either.
The sedentarius variety of this hummingbird flies as far east as Texas to spend the winter and as far north as Oregon to spend the summer.
They have become critically important for the pollination and survival of larkspurs and snapdragons.
Male Allen’s Hummingbirds do stake a claim to lekking (courtship display) areas during mating season.
They will establish their own space to about 25 feet of territory where they can fly back and forth like a pendulum.
Or dive from about 100 feet so fast they make their tail feathers flutter, to impress available females.
With regard to food sources, however, Allen’s Hummingbirds are essentially non-territorial. They have no need to be.
Also in Southern California, a non-aggressive backyard visitor is Anna’s Hummingbird.
These hummingbirds used to be restricted to the immediate Los Angeles area, but they have found year-round hummingbird feeders as far north as in British Columbia and as far east as Albuquerque.
Ornithologists at the University of California at Davis devised a research study to see if the reason these Southern California hummingbirds are non-territorial is that food is so abundant.
The scientists found a location where hummingbirds had protected habitat, and they had access to sugar-water feeders 365 days a year.
The scientists observed multiple hummingbirds at the feeders at the same time. They only saw territorial displays when males were attracting mates.
The average visit of two or more hummingbirds at the same time at the same feeder was 11 seconds.
That is long enough for a hummingbird, theoretically to take 600 drinks from the feeder.
Male hummingbirds happily visited the feeders at the same time as other male hummingbirds.
Females were a little more wary, but didn’t attempt to chase other females away.
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