There’s no mistaking the dizzying display of a hummingbird’s wings as it zips around from flower to flower looking for nectar. But often, that same frantic action is used to chase other hummingbirds. So, why do hummingbirds chase each other? Are these tiny, unique creatures simply having fun, or is there another reason?
There are several explanations for why hummers behave in this manner!
Tiny Creatures with a Big Attitude
The biggest reasons hummingbirds engage in aerial combat are to secure breeding and feeding territory. A true in-flight fight of two hummers is an amazing display of flying precision. They can twist and turn in the air, fly backward, and dive-bomb each other, wielding their long bills as weapons. They can also hover in place like a helicopter.
Not all territorial battles are that dramatic. Sometimes simply a ruffling of features to appear larger, or a high-pitched chatter will be enough to keep a rival at bay. Male hummingbirds are extremely territorial when it comes to securing a location with good food or an ideal nesting spot.
But females are quite adept at protecting their space as well.
Hummingbirds and Nest Wars
Hummingbird moms don’t give up their nesting areas easily! They are also quite protective of their young.
Sometimes another female will attempt to take over a nest, which is around the size of a ping-pong ball. Another aggressive maneuver is for a female who is building a nest of her own to try and steal material from one that’s already completed. Only female hummingbirds construct nests. So any thievery of nesting materials is being done by a rival of the same gender!
Watching this kind of maneuver play out demonstrates the tenacity of the female hummer, whether she be a nesting mother or a thief. A mom-to-be, for instance, will continue making repairs to places where nesting material has been stolen and lay her eggs even while under attack. But these kinds of battles don’t always end well. Under such constant duress, nesting moms have abandoned their claim, along with their eggs.
Hummingbird Food Fights
Hummingbirds ingest tremendous amounts of insects and nectar. And they’re eating practically all the time — every 15 minutes! Considering that they consume around half of their body weight every day, a place where food is plentiful is well worth protecting.
Since they don’t make a distinction between a flower and a nectar feeder, they will tend to stake a claim on either. Even if you continually fill your hummer feeder with sugar water, they will not be inclined to want to share it. To a hummer, nectar is nectar, whether it comes from a red feeder or a red flower.
Does a Chase Always Mean a Fight?
During mating season males often decide upon a territory, watch it from high in a tree, and chase other males away. That doesn’t necessarily end in a battle but establishes who’s king of the turf. Male hummingbirds also go to extreme lengths to make themselves attractive to females.
A study done by Princeton University called “dive-bombing for love,” discovered some amazing hummingbird courtship rituals that could be mistaken for fighting. The researchers found that broad-tailed hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus), for example, will do some “truly amazing,” spectacular dives to impress the ladies!
Male members of one breeding colony of broad-tailed hummers, which live in the western part of the United States, have been observed sweeping down from heights of up to 100 feet in the direction of a perched female. Once they have reached the object of their affection, in a matter of milliseconds, they then combine a “tail-generated buzz” sound with a display of bright-red throat feathers. One of the researchers called it an “in-your-face sensory explosion.”
Are Some Hummingbirds More Aggressive?
There are over 330 species of hummingbirds, although only 15 reside in the U.S.
Of those, the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is the most aggressive, even more so than crows. Found in western states, this species is extremely territorial, and has been observed chasing chipmunks that get too close to its nests!
The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is another aggressive hummer. It will chase other males as well as juveniles away from its territory. The males have emerald-green feathers on their backs, along with their namesake ruby-colored throat. Females have white throats, but on rare occasions, they can sport a single red feather.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds live up and down the East Coast from Florida to Maine and as far west as Iowa.
During courtship, both the ruby-throated and rufous hummingbirds can beat their wings up to 200 times a second. That’s a big increase from the typical 50 to 75 beats a second!
How to Keep Hummingbirds from Chasing Each Other
You can reduce the chances of aggressive hummingbird behavior with some simple steps.
First, instead of one or two large feeders with multiple nectar ports, use several small, “one-flower” feeders instead.
And don’t place them all in the same location. For the best results in keeping peace in your yard, put some feeders out of sight from the others. Even the biggest hummingbird bully can’t take charge of four or more feeders strategically placed. Despite their instinctive territorial nature, it’s not uncommon to see several hummers perched on a feeder and calmly enjoying some nectar together.
A Hummingbird’s Fight for Life
Since most hummingbird battles are for territorial reasons, you might think they’re simply aggressive little birds who enjoy a good fight. But it’s their metabolism that keeps them on guard constantly.
Hummingbirds do not have robust stores of energy. They wouldn’t survive without constantly consuming nectar or insects. It’s only before migrating that they significantly increase their body weight. Their diminutive size and weight, no more than that of a penny, also impair their ability to keep warm.
Since they need to constantly keep taking in calories, how does a hummingbird sleep?
Hummers keep from starving to death while sleeping by entering a state of “torpor,” a type of temporary, involuntary hibernation. During torpor, the bird’s heartbeat and body temperature go down, reducing its need for food.
The hummingbird’s metabolism is so unique that researchers have been studying it for decades. One expert, Associate Professor Kenneth Welch at the University of Toronto, found that hummingbirds utilize oxygen at rates humans can’t — not even world-class athletes! Dr. Welch also discovered that hummingbirds, unlike people, can immediately move glucose (from nectar) through their system. It goes directly to their muscle cells in “real time.”
By Land or Water, Hummers Migrate Alone
All healthy North American hummingbirds migrate great distances, with one exception — the Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna). These lovely multi-colored little birds, which reside mostly in California, don’t migrate in the typical sense. Called “altitudinal migrants,” they seek out higher altitudes in warmer weather, and lower ones in winter.
Triggers for hummer migration in the late summer include lower temperatures and diminished daylight. Hummers such as the ruby-throated variety then make the long journey south, even going as far as Costa Rica. Some take a shorter trip across the Gulf of Mexico, a dangerous route with no place to stop and rest. Others go by land around the coast of Texas, which allows them to refuel on the way.
Whatever route a migrating hummingbird chooses it will repeat again and again. Flying alone, their instincts guide them over land and water. Banded hummingbirds have even shown up in the same places on the same day every year during migration! Like a veteran traveler with a road map, these diminutive birds instinctively know where to go and how to get there.
And when nature calls them back north in the spring to their breeding grounds, their journey will follow the same path.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Fiona M. Donnelly/Shutterstock.com
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