Hummingbirds don’t play well with each other. Here is the reason.


I had a simple question for Emma Greig at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Why are hummingbirds so dorky? Except that I didn’t use the word “jolts”. I used a word you might use if someone cut you off on the device, as in: “Hey, [word that means ‘jerk’ but is ruder]!”

Greig chuckled. She knew exactly what I meant: basically, why can’t hummingbirds play nice with each other?

Every spring I hang a nectar feeder in my garden and then patiently wait for the first hummer. And the second. I dream of a whole bunch of hummingbirds getting drunk on the sweet syrup, like several birds feeding from my seed-filled feeder across the yard.

But nooooo. Not for the hummingbird the temporary relaxation that exists in an African watering hole. If a hummingbird is at the feeder and a second one arrives, a fight breaks out. One dive bombards the other, driving it away. While there’s room for three hummingbirds to simultaneously sip at the feeder—and there’s plenty of perches for more to patiently wait on—that never happens. These guys and gals seem to be engaged in an eternal blood feud. Which give?

That’s why I called Greig, who leads Cornell Lab’s FeederWatch project, an annual bird survey conducted from November through April. Under this program, respondents can track the jerk quotient in birds. Well, they call it “aggression,” but you get the idea.

“We could really quantify who the toughest birds are,” Greig said. “For their body size, hands down, the most aggressive bird is the Rufous Hummingbird.”

They are more aggressive than blue jays and crows, she says.

We rarely get the rufous in the Washington area, but we do get its cousin, the ruby-throated hummingbird. And it looks just as aggressive. He might as well get his motto from that Tom Small song: “I won’t back down.”

Greig said there was a reason they wouldn’t back down. Hummingbirds are accustomed to feeding on flower patches, where each flower contains only a tiny amount of life-giving nectar.

“They have to keep visiting them again and again,” Greig said. “What they’ve evolved to do is defend those flowerbeds, those territories where they have food resources.”

And so, she says, “Their personalities are all about defense. That’s why they’re so dorky at feeders. It’s really their nature. »

To a hummingbird, a nectar feeder is “like a huge, endless flower.” But they don’t know it’s endless, that’s why they hunt their rivals. When a resource is limited, you protect it at all costs.

I saw ruby-throated hummingbirds of both sexes wandering away from our feeder. When breeding, males can be particularly aggressive. “The males will maintain a small territory,” Greig said. “There are two benefits to having a territory: protecting your food and protecting your mate. A male hummingbird does not want his mate exposed to other male hummingbirds.

To be honest, even though the hummingbirds in my feeder refuse to relax, I still get excited when I see one. They are nature’s drones, gliding up and down, back and forth, hovering in place, then flying away. Their moves would leave a “Top Gun” pilot in the dust.

I asked Greig what she finds so attractive in hummingbirds.

“They’re just a real evolutionary extreme,” she said. “They have such small bodies and fast wings and can move in all directions. I just think they’re a cool bird.

They are almost more insects than birds.

Said Greig: “I think that’s part of the appeal. They’re just a little weird.

There is something else too.

“Because they’re so fast and agile, they’re not particularly afraid of large, slow giants like humans,” Greig said. “I think they’re very willing to come and look at your shirt – if it’s a colored shirt – and take a very close look at it. They’re so nimble and curious and fearless.

I guess the only thing that matches a hummingbird is… another hummingbird. No wonder they mix.

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