Hummingbird Wars

By , April 28, 2010

If you have hummingbirds around your home, you know how fascinating these tiny birds are. For all their apparent ineffable delicacy, they are tough little suckers! Among all the birds around us, the hummingbird may be the most self-assured of them all. I don’t believe they know fear! When we enter the dooryard, we often duck from at least one buzzing run, often more. Sometimes it’s curiosity, particularly if we’re wearing red. Sometimes they hover near us to eat the mosquitoes we attract. Other times they’re reminding us it’s time to refill the feeder. Most often, though, we just happen to be in the way. Because, more than food, more than nectar, it seems these tiny creatures crave battle.

Dogfight! (Photo: Mark Zeiger)

Both sexes are very territorial. They lay claim to prime feeding locations and do their best to keep all others away. A defender can barely drink for watching for intruders that sneak in with haunted looks to furtively drink and flee. They seem to engage in subterfuge to lure each other out of range of the feeder, then double back for a quick drink. Bluster and ferocity adds to the entertainment.

As the mating season progresses, they become increasingly belligerent. We have ringside seats to their aerial dog fighting. The hummingbirds don’t just fight among themselves, they also chase larger songbirds. Each day is near-constant activity from sun up to sundown. Then, because these tiny creatures have such high metabolisms that they wouldn’t last through the Alaskan night without feeding, they find a roosting spot and drop into a torpor that nearly suspends their body functions until the next morning.

Once I saw a male hit a window. I rushed over and looked out on the yard. To my horror, the bird hovered about a foot off the ground. Its wing and tail feathers fanned, and it swung back and forth in a crazy, erratic U-shaped flight. Nerve damage? Then it stopped, and flew off. I had just seen my first mating display. The little cuss bounced off the window and came out swinging, as it were.

Alaska hosts two species of hummingbirds in our brief summers, rufous and Anna’s. We’re not sure we’ve seen any Anna’s here. The rufous sit on the satellite wire outside the dining table window, flashing their iridescent chins at us (or, more probably, their own reflection in the window).

By July mating will be over, and the males will disperse. The females nest around our yard, but we remove the feeders in August as the hummingbirds begin to leave. By September our little dooryard will return to relative quiet until the next spring, when the cycle starts again.

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