battle of the hummingbirds

What a show: Battle of the Hummingbirds reaches its peak

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird comes in for a landing on a favorite feeder. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

Only when we slowed the video way down and then blew it up could we see the ferocity of the encounter: The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovered above its competitor, then slammed bill-first into the female like a tiny gladiator.

The clash sent the two tumbling into the air. (See the video below.) Once again, the alpha male had done his job in the survival-of-the-fittest world of this smallest, most acrobatic of species.

Much of the daily routines of nature are invisible to us. They take place deep in the woods, fields or wetlands, often at speeds that obscure any real details. Even the most avid birders get mere glimpses of how birds interact.

But the spread of hummingbird feeders all across the U.S. each summer doesn’t just help support these birds. In exchange for a supply of hummingbird sugar water, we get a close-up look at the way birds establish territories, settle into pecking orders, help and compete with one another and fight to survive.

We’re closing the year by publishing the most popular posts of 2021 — which was our year of travel across the country. Each weekend, we’ll run an updated version of the original story, a kind of tour of the birdscape from North Carolina to Hawaii, Florida to Wyoming. We’ll feature Snow Geese, Sandpipers, Hummingbirds, Tree Swallows, Pileated Woodpeckers and Palilas, the rare the Hawaiian honeycreeper. We hope you’ll come along with us on the tour. But if you’d like to skip ahead or go back and read one you missed, click on the links on these birds. Wishing you a wonderful year of birding ahead. 
      Here’s a video about the fierce competition playing out around the feeders:
A male Ruby-throated takes his sentry post

Beverly and I spent much of this month in western Massachusetts, including many hours watching and photographing hummingbirds in the wild and around feeders. We came away with a renewed appreciation for the miraculous flying mechanics of hummingbirds – as well as their unending energy.

We know we’re not alone. Nobody keeps track of the number of feeders in this country, but there’s no question of the explosion of hummingbird feeders and enthusiasts in much of the U.S.

“There are vastly, vastly greater numbers of feeders today than there were 20 years ago,’’ said Scott Weidensaul, a hummingbird expert and author who has spent his career researching the birds. “If you live anywhere there are hummingbirds, it’s become de rigueur to have a feeder in your back yard.’’

A female hummingbird comes after a male.

The scenes unfolding around these feeders is a window into the daily routines of hummingbirds.

The constant battles over who gets to sip to the nectar reslut from the natural aggressiveness built into the hummingbird’s makeup. If the males and females don’t seem to work together, that’s because once they’ve produced their young, they pretty much go their separate ways. While the males tend to be more aggressive, Weidensaul says the females hold their own.

“The females give as much as they get,’’ he said. “The hummingbirds tend to mix it up quite a lot. That’s the way hummingbirds roll.’’

What stands out about the hummingbirds —  and a big part of what attracts us all to these birds — is their breathtaking beauty. Aptly named for gems like rubies, sapphires and emeralds, hummingbirds literally shimmer and shine in the right light. Parts of their plumage is made up of tiny patches of neon-like substances called melanosomes that turn reflected light iridescent — at the right angle.

A male hummingbird’s throat patch practically shines from the front.

The arial shows they perform around the feeders cost us almost nothing, when you consider the main ingredients are four parts water to one part plain white sugar. All we have to do in exchange is keep the feeders clean, which is important for the birds’ health. (Here’s the Hummingbird Society’s instructions on that, and here’s the Audubon Society’s.)

Those performances are getting more frenzied as the summer winds down. The birds are now preparing to migrate halfway down the hemisphere to winter stays in Latin and South America. That means they need to step up their feeding to bulk up from about the usual three grams to twice that to withstand the trip. While most of their real sustenance comes from eating insects, the sugar water gives them the energy they need to pull it all off.

     Here’s a gallery of hummingbirds collecting nectar from the field:

       Here’s an animation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that shows the timing of spring and fall migration and the movements of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
      And here’s a map from an excellent site called that shows the reach of the most common of the two dozen varieties of Hummingbirds found in North America. The Ruby-throated (red) is the most dominant and covers all of the East, and others are spread around the west:

Screen Shot 2020-08-17 at 8.34.02 AMThe growth of humming bird feeders are part of the overall popularity in backyard birdwatching, which is experiencing a mini-boom from the stay-at-home orders this year. An estimated 60 million Americans together spend more than $4 billion on bird seed each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They may be the smallest species, but there’s much about the hummingbird that helps them stand out in the crowd of backyard birds.

“They are amazing,’’ said Weidensaul. “Their amazing little wings will beat 60 to 80 times a second. Their hearts will beat 1,000 times a minute. They’re truly astounding.

And all you need is a small feeder hanging in your yard to get in on this wonder.

“There an intimacy with hummingbirds that you don’t get with any other wildlife,’’ he said.

       Here’s one more gallery of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds we’ve spotted up and down the East Coast over the past few years:

6 responses to “What a show: Battle of the Hummingbirds reaches its peak”

  1. We’ve been feeding hummers for many years.
    Added a 2nd feeder not visible from the 1st thinking it might cut down on the fighting.
    Nope. We recently did get a female that has pretty much stood up to the dominant male and frequently lands n rests near him, occasionally dive bombing him on a feeder..she pretty much ownes the front yard,what few flowers are there now late in the year.its a native plant garden BTW.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Thanks for your note. They really are something! Can’t wait til they’re headed back our way again.

  2. Your comments may be true of the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds east of the Mississippi but my experience in Prescott, Arizona was that desperately protecting a feeder was the exception rather than the rule. We had 10 feeders with 6 feeding ports each spread along the back of our house located in the hills on a hummingbird migration route. In late summer 60-80 hummingbirds at any one time was the norm. Every feeding station would be full. Sometimes 2 hummers even sat next to each other sharing a port. Others would be hovering 1-2 feet away eagerly waiting their chance. Occasionally one hummer would try protecting a feeder but as soon as it got engaged in chasing off one hummer — others would quickly arrive. The defender would soon give up. We went through about six 50 lb bags of sugar a year. It was well worth the cost and effort.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Interesting difference. Thanks for taking the time to share that. I suppose it could be a difference in species.

  3. There is a”choke point” somewhere in western states where the migrating hummingbirds get concentrated due to the closing mountains sides. There you see a lot of hummingbirds passing through. You see hundreds of them, all looking for something to eat.

  4. […] Southwest. Some of the most popular Flying Lessons posts have been about hummingbirds, including this one about the battles that break out around some feeders, and this one about how some hummingbirds have stopped migrating […]

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