Monday, October 20, 2008

Hummingbird Wars

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 Bradford pear tree in the yard about 20 feet from the feeder, and often the hummingbirds go there after feeding or stage there before feeding. Being even smaller than the leaves of the tree, the hummingbirds are nearly invisible once they reach the tree. But the males sitting in the tree turn back and forth, and their red throats flash each time they move. They are like bright red lasers advertising their presence.

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.”


tona said...

And where do they go? Don't they fly some amazing distance like 200 miles without stopping or refueling? I think they're incredible animals. I love to watch them from the cabin window.

Geary said...

I think they go to Central America for the winter -- or someplace really far away.

Maren said...

They really are fun. Thanks for this write-up. I never noticed them growing up... did we have them in VA? I think the first time I really got a good look at one was out in California, but I remember Grandma Y always had a feeder at her kitchen window.

I'm always surprised to see them here. There are a few flowers in my garden that they really like- red ones, of course.

Geary said...

I don't remember seeing any until we started spending weekends at the cabin. Only the ruby-throated hummingbird exists in the east, but there are others in the west, and especially south into central america.