Ruby-throated Hummingbirds: Ready for combat — and migration south

Second of three parts

One of the most intriguing traits of the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the shimmering red patch that covers its throat and changes its shades of color — sometimes disappearing entirely — depending on the angle you happen to be watching this iridescent bird.

The small piece of plumage is called a gorget, a term borrowed from the armor that knights wore to protect themselves in battle. It’s a fitting analogy especially this time of year because the hummingbirds do a great imitation of miniature medieval combatants: they’re constantly dueling over the treasure of their kingdoms, the sweet nectar they live on.  

We spent hours watching Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Western Massachusetts toward the this summer as they geared up for their upcoming migrations. That means they’re loading up on fuel for their flights and clashing with one another all day long. Our last post focused mostly on the females among them, and this one is on the males.

The birds are famous for their infighting, which is attributed to the fact that nectar both from flowers and backyard feeders can be hard to come by. So once the birds find a source, they protect it as a matter of life and death.   

Here’s one of our favorite videos from an earlier visit that, slowed down in places to catch the action, shows what it’s like in the hummingbird competition.

One recent day, the birds were especially active following a stretch of rain that left the nectar from the fields and flowers harder to find. So I set up my camera for most of the afternoon to catch the drama. Time and again, the birds would chase each other away from the feeder, sometimes circling one another like boxers, sometimes slamming into each other, using their long beaks like javelins.

When they get agitated enough, the bird’s tiny wings — beating up to 80 times a second — will buzz loud enough to startle you. At times, they’ll go into warning mode, flying in great circles that clearly are meant to frighten off their peers. It’s enough to even get us humans to back away.

 Here’s a gallery of the action from that day:

Female Ruby-throated
Male Rub-throated Hummingbird

Like many birds, the males get the better deal when it comes to plumage. The female Ruby-throated have elegant green and white feathers that are beautiful in their own right. But the males are adorned with the deeper green plumage against white chests and their orangish red gorgets that look like part of a tuxedo for a night on the town.

The mysteries of hummingbirds have recently been taken apart by researchers trying to understand how these birds produce such extraordinary colors. It turns out that what we see as orangish-red plumage on the bird’s throat, for instance, is the result of the refraction of light coming off the hummingbird’s multiple layers of feathers. This is true of many birds, but hummingbirds have taken the ability to twist and turn light to a singular level.

A male Ruby-throated takes off.

Their feathers have evolved to pull off this trick with more variety than any other wildlife species. Researchers from Yale University, publishing in the journal Communication Biology, found the world’s 360 species of hummingbirds create more colors than all the rest of the globe’s 11,000 birds combined. (An excellent article on all of this can be found in the latest LivingBird magazine from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

The male birds aren’t doing this only for beauty’s sake. Their dramatic colors are the key to attracting females, the experts remind us. They’ve been so successful that when humans went to work naming these birds, they turned to phrases from precious jewels for more than 50 of the birds, from the rubies and emeralds to sapphires, topaz and amethysts.

We’ll wrap up this post with a gallery of hummingbirds from our trip to Ecuador last year, where this small country that straddles the Andes and the Amazon has more species than anywhere else on earth. Here are just a few of our favorites that illustrate the remarkable diversity of color, beaks, tails and gorgets, starting with the Sapphire-vented Puffleg and the Andean Emerald.

33 responses to “Ruby-throated Hummingbirds: Ready for combat — and migration south”

  1. Beautiful photos and what an interesting article! I put two feeders up at the front and the back of the house, and they still fight.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful post. Our hummingbirds are beginning to depart for the winter, though those who are left continue to fight over the feeders. These are endlessly delightful creatures — so worth the study and time.

    1. My favorite bird that my mother loved was hummingbirds she had me stand out on the railing of their porch at a country store log cabin store they had I stood there for an hour with one of the cameras that prints out the picture instantly I caught this hummingbird with the red belly and neck with a green head and a white circle around his neck it took me an hour but I got the picture for her

  3. Stunning creatures…thank you for sharing your photos. I love learning about our bird friends…just knowing some of the amazing facts helps inspire awe and care!

    1. Thanks very much for your note. Much appreciated. Aren’t these birds amazing?

    2. Thanks very much for taking the time to write.

    3. Thank you for this fascinating posting & pix. We have only 5 feedres out mostly but now, getting them ready to leave will put out 4 more. To attract the scouts in spring/etc we use fake red flowers on the stanchions which support the feeders holding uncolored nectar, plus red fluttering cloth on the railings, etc. I like the 3:1 ration in fall & will try that. I think leaving feeders out until freeze may still enable some late migratory to feed, and they might come back next spring. We occasionally see a different-from-ruby-throats in North-Alabama probably blown off normal travel route.

  4. Great photos. I know of a friend who has as many as ten feeders in close proximity. I have seen a large number of humming birds feeding there at the same time, with little or no fighting.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment. Much appreciated.

  5. If you put out more feeders is there less battle? What are the best feeders for ruby throats? Best flowers to plant? What is the preferred method — dying the water or leaving it clear?
    Just wondering best practices for feeding.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment — and your questions. We’re going to answer these and other questions about hummingbirds in an upcoming post. All the best, Anders

    2. We’ve been feeding for at least 30 years! We use sugar and water only! 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Bring to rolling boil for 4 minutes. In the spring and now in the fall, we do 3 parts water so it’s more potent. I planted a honeysuckle vine close to our feeding area (we have 10 feeders!) and they love it! We are currently using about 3 quarts of mixture a day as northern migrants come through. It’s amazing that they remember our little house in Southern Illinois!

      1. Thanks very much for your note. We use a similar mixture. Also, we’re planning an upcoming post on comments and questions that are pouring in. We may use your comments. Thanks again.

  6. Thank you for such wonderful article & beautiful pictures. I had a
    Ruby Red male stay the winter of 2022. Is still here guarding his feeders. I am wondering if he will stay this winter. Keeping feeders from freezing was a challenge .I live in SE Alaska.

  7. Thank you for the photos and slow motion feature. However, I was surprised to see you feature a feeder with red dyed hummer food. Everything I have read discourages dying the food. It is not necessary.

    1. Thank you for pointing out the dye issues, which we’re well aware of and will make that point on our next post when we answer questions from readers and share comments. All the best, Anders

  8. This made my anxiety ..quell.
    Blessings to the 10th power dearone.

  9. I’m near Lillington, NC. We still have ours coming to the feeders. Recently, we saved one from exhaustion. She was trapped in our garage. I have to remember to close the garage doors! Thank you for the beautiful pictures and video. I love everything about the hummingbirds!

  10. BIG! No,No.. Having red dye in the hummingbird food it’s harmful for them. You can make your own nectar by boiling four cups of water to one cup of pure cane sugar. It will keep in the frig for two weeks

    1. Hi Tina, and thank you for your comments. We appreciate your pointing out the issues surrounding sugar water, which we emphasize elsewhere on this website. The video happened to show the red dye water, but that wasn’t to suggests that’s the right approach. We happened to catch the birds in those collisions and wanted to reflect that in the piece.

  11. Thanks for the article. I recently bought a camper and put out a hummingbird feeder, I love to watch them and we even name the birds.

  12. I was saddened to learn from a neighbor that in NC the hummingbirds stop visiting as of September 1st. Is this true?

  13. Windy Leigh Glasgow Avatar
    Windy Leigh Glasgow

    Yes, I have received much wonder and joy observing my visitors battle for the prize, of which my feeders stay full both front and back with added vitamins and calcium for energy and durability for future eggs as I know many of you have! Thank you for such an informative worthwhile article with awesome pictures!

  14. Thank you for this great site! & info. We attract scouts here in North Alabsma in the early spring (& all season) with red artificial flowers on feeder stanchions, plus fluttering red cloths on porch railings, etc. Will go from 5 to 19 feeders in a few days, here. Keeping some out after most depart, will hopefully give some late travellers sustenance to help them make it to Rockport TX.. then Mexico. Amazing birds!

    1. Thanks for your note. Wow, what a great collection of feeders. Congrats.

  15. I love them. They’re the most beautiful birds around. I have two feeders out. One by my window. I love to sit and watch them. They chase each other away. 👍

  16. What’s sad is seeing red dye in that feeder. Don’t use dye or store bought nectar. Make it 4 cups water to 1 cup regular sugar.
    The dye is not necessary and kills them.

    1. My home is an oasis for all avian species. I love them all ❤

    2. Thanks for your note on the due. We’ll take this up on our next post and emphasize the issues on this point.

  17. My home is an oasis for all avian life. Love them all❤

  18. I’ve been told boiling the water is not necessary…..tell me the truth ! We have city water and just use white granulated sugar.

    1. Thanks for your question and comment. We’ll look into your point and answer it on our next post, when we’ll take up the many questions raised, relying on researchers and experts for advice.

  19. We are on the coastal bend of Texas. The beautiful hummers are here in force! I wish they could stay year round. We do have a few females that will stay around well into December depending on the weather. The fledglings are so plentiful this year!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: