Killer hummingbirds?

Well, blogging being the inbred activity that it is, I’m starting off by tackling the well-intentioned comments of another blogger. A post to the Hummingbird Forum on Network 54 alerted me to a post at Robin’s Nesting Place in which “Robin” blames feeders for an attack on a weakened hummingbird by a healthy territorial one. She wrote:

It isn’t worth it for me to have a feeder if it causes the hummingbirds to be so violent with each other…

Using feeders is a wholly personal choice, but I hate to see someone become upset – and upset others – over a misinterpretation. In a follow-up post, Robin described hummingbirds “fighting to kill” as “unexpected behavior”:

I thought they were just cute little interesting birds and had this sweet image of them in my mind. It was a shock for me to witness such unexpected violence.

As my husband says, people who describe hummingbirds as “cute”and “sweet” haven’t been paying attention. But a lot of people share this misconception, and shedding it is a significant step in Robin’s growth as a gardener and observer of nature. Unfortunately, her horror has pushed her a bit far the opposite direction, leading her to believe that hummingbirds routinely fight to the death over feeders. As proof, she linked to another gardener’s blog with a photo of a hummingbird at a feeder, supposedly bloodied from a fight.

Hummingbirds are definitely more Taz than Tinker Bell, but (thankfully) they just don’t have what it takes to commit trochilicide. Even if that wicked-looking bill wasn’t too fragile and sensitive to be an effective weapon, its wielder couldn’t muster enough force to fatally pierce the body of another bird without risking its own life. Even the most vicious fight seldom does more than dislodge a few feathers. That photo in the other blog? A juvenile male Ruby-throated acquiring his red gorget feathers, not a bloody female. I’ve watched tens of thousands of hummingbirds feeding and fighting and never, ever seen a bloody one.

The fact is that a healthy hummingbird will either defend itself or flee before a more aggressive individual gets the chance to do any significant damage. Only birds weakened by hunger, disease, or injuries (from encounters with cats, windows, cars, and power lines, for example) are vulnerable to injury and, in rare instances, death from other hummingbirds, but these disadvantaged birds are far more at risk from cats, larger birds, and other predators. A starving, sick, or injured hummingbird is going to gravitate toward the easiest and most reliable energy source – a feeder – which makes one-sided battles such as the one Robin witnessed more likely to be observed at feeders. But it’s not the feeders’ fault, and their accessibility may mean the difference between life and death for those disadvantaged birds – a quick energy boost that gives them the strength to fight back or flee.

If feeders made hummingbirds fight to the death, imagine the carnage at our famous hummingbird feeding stations here in Arizona, some of which have dozens of feeders and host literally thousands of hummingbirds per day in migration. With one of our most combative hummingbirds, the Blue-throated, being three to four times the size of most of its rivals, the ground under the feeders would be littered with corpses. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen, despite frequent savage battles, or these feeding stations would have been closed years ago.

The implication in Robin’s original post, clarified in the comments that followed, was that hummingbirds don’t fight over flowers. Ha! If hummingbirds aren’t fighting over her flowers, she needs to plant better flowers. The richer the nectar source, the more it’s worth fighting over, so I’m guessing that Robin’s garden doesn’t include a really spectacular nectar producer. My own garden is mostly hummingbird flowers, but neither my “tame” flowers nor my feeders can compete with the wild agaves that grow nearby. Even though the numbers of migrants have been increasingly daily, our feeders have been virtually abandoned for the last couple of weeks (except following heavy rains). Instead, the birds are jousting and bickering with each other over the agave flowers.

So what can a sensitive, peace-loving soul do to foster détente in the feeder wars? Try adding more feeders and moving them further apart, preferably out of sight of one another. This won’t keep them from fighting, but it’ll give more birds a chance to feed undisturbed.

Related posts:

Fawn-breasted Brilliants in combat

Killer hummingbirds revisited