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 reposting this piece on the hummingbird battles after spending the past two weeks in Western Massachusetts where we watched this story play out a summer ago. We’ve been refreshing our most popular stories this year while we work on a book about bird conservation across the hemisphere. (Here’s a link to Simon & Schuster’s summary ahead of the April 2023 publication date.) These hummingbirds are in their final weeks before migration starts toward the end of this month, which makes this a time of plenty of battles as these birds bulk up for their journeys south.
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.’’
The scenes unfolding around these feeders is a window into the daily routines of hummingbirds.
The constant battles over who gets to sip the nectar results 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.
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 HummingBirdCentral.com 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:
The 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.