All summer long I have watched the hummingbirds that come to the feeder that sits just outside the dining room window. First to arrive in the spring are the females. They are a bit drab – green and gray in color – but are so delicate and small that they are a joy to watch. The feeder will accommodate four birds at a time, but this is overkill on the part of the feeder’s designer because four hummingbirds will never, ever be feeding at the same time. The reason is that hummingbirds are extremely territorial. The one feeding will arrive, but before beginning to feed, will look all around to make sure she is alone. Only then will she dip her beak into the fake flower to sip at the sugar solution that mimics the nectar. She swallows at an extreme rate – about seven or eight swallows per second, so it doesn’t take long to fill up. Even so, she will stop often and look around again to make sure she is undisturbed.
And often she is not undisturbed. If another hummingbird arrives, the newcomer will take a higher position from which she can dive down to attack the resident. This maneuver is often enough to make the resident abandon her perch and dive down and away from the newcomer. If she has not yet filled up, she will take the high position herself as the newcomer tries to position to drink. From her superior position, she will dive at the newcomer and drive her away. This back and forth continues until one or the other gives up and retreats. The action is very fast – almost too fast to follow with the eye. If there is a dog-fighter among birds it is the hummingbird! In less than two seconds they will have exchanged positions three or four times.
The winner begins all over again by perching – or sometimes just hovering – in front of the fake flower, to look all around for any encroaching rivals before beginning to feed.
When the males arrive, a little later in the spring, things really get hot. One male and one female MAY share the feeder, but often will not, and two males will NEVER share the feeder. Females sometimes share with one other female, but I suspect these are nest-mates, as I only see them do so later in the summer and fall.
Battles between males are even faster and more violent than between females – and a lot more colorful too. The iridescent green of the wings, and the almost blindingly bright red of the throat give off flashes of color as the sun catches the feathers just right during their aerial duels. And, the body language, especially between males, is almost laughably human-like. The newcomer arrives and takes the high position with a haughty pose that clearly says, “I don’t know who you think you are, but you are at MY feeder!” The one at the feeder looks around and says, “Who me? I’m just taking a drink here.” But he eyes the newcomer suspiciously and somewhat nervously, and very carefully avoids putting himself at any further disadvantage like, for example, putting his beak back into the fake flower. Sometimes the feeder just leaves at this point, but if he doesn’t, the battle is joined when the newcomer dives to the attack. The winner perches at the feeder, and ruffles and settles his feathers, while his body language clearly states, “Well! I guess I took care of THAT guy!”
Hummingbirds fly amazingly fast, and because they are so small, sometimes they just seem to disappear. They’re here and then they’re just gone. There is a
Now, in late October, the hummingbirds are gone. They seem to leave pretty much all at the same time. We won’t see them again until next spring. One day we will see one come to the window and hover there, saying as clearly as if they had spoken English to us – “What happened to the feeder that used to hang here? I’m back, let’s get with it, you humans.”