Hummingbird Wars

A few days ago there was a short but eye-opening New York Times article concerning recent research on hummingbirds.  The research indicates that Hummingbird beaks evolved primarily for fighting, not for feeding.

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Ruby Throated Hummingbird

The traditional view has been that the long, slender hummingbird beaks co-evolved with tubular flowers as a means of accessing food. However, it turns out that Hummingbird beaks are not terribly efficient at sucking up nectar, but they do make excellent weapons for fighting other hummingbirds.

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Feeding on Cigar Plant

Male Hummingbirds fight in order to control prime mating territories, which is how one attracts the Hummingbird ladies. (The article notes that a typical mating territory is about 270 square feet, or “the size of a very small New York City apartment.”) It doesn’t matter if you are inefficient at sipping nectar if you don’t let any other Hummingbirds get to the flowers in your territory.

To that end, some Hummingbird species have serrated beaks, reminiscent of a shark’s jaws.

war god
The Aztec god of war was a Hummingbird. 

Anyone who has spent much time watching Hummingbirds knows that they are fierce. However, some people insist on portraying them as beautiful but harmless little sprites, sort of like avian Tinkerbells. On the other hand, the Aztec god of war was a Hummingbird, and Aztec warriors wore Hummingbird feathers when they marched off to battle.

The online article is accompanied by an excellent video (click above to watch), mostly of Hummingbirds fighting. I recommend that you watch, but it is not for the faint of heart (I gasped at one point). Also, I apologize for the 10 second advertisement.

I still love Hummingbirds, even if they are tiny thugs. Plants that attract Hummingbirds (like Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitca), Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) get priority placement in our garden.

At the same time, I’m glad that people are too big to be harmed by Hummingbirds, because they seem to be so fierce that they might inflict real damage (if they could) on anybody who wanders into their mating territory.

50 Comments on “Hummingbird Wars

  1. They’re not thugs. They’re assertive little creatures who sometimes show thuggish behavior! I didn’t know about the connection between the Aztecs and the hummingbird. Thinking about the number of hummingbird feathers needed for a warrior certainly gave pause.

    • I think they incorporated some hummingbird feathers into their clothing, not that they dressed entirely in hummingbird feathers. That would take a lot of hummingbirds.

  2. To borrow from Shakespeare: Though they be but little, they are fierce. I, too, love seeing hummingbirds in the summer, but Jason, like you, I am glad they are small.

  3. Despite a wide variety of plantings in my yard, I don’t often have hummingbirds visit. The last two summers I’ve had one who visits my black and blue salvia daily for a week or two and then disappears. Wish I had more. The article was very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    • In our garden I found that over time we attracted more hummingbirds, so maybe you will see more eventually. They do like ‘Black and Blue’ Salvia, and other Salvias as well.

  4. Who knew?! Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. I grow Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ each summer and they can’t seem to get enough of it. My saliva also is irresistible. But I’ve not noticed them on my honeysuckle, maybe I don’t have the kind they like.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, I never would have guessed the beaks weren’t just for feeding. I saw one in my rosemary a few days ago. I would have tried to get his photo, but wanted him to get to the nectar quickly since it was so cold out.
    He was agitated at me as it was! They do have attitudes.

  6. “avian Tinkerbells”…yes! I liked that idea of them, although I have been buzzed by a couple, in a way that had me stepping away so I didn’t get poked with that beak.

  7. It makes sense, actually – their extremely long tongues take care of the nectar sipping. Not all hummers have long bills although they are all pointy, but then there is the Sword-Billed Hummingbird, which always appears to be doing a balancing act for obvious reasons.

  8. The picture for the article is rather frightening. I have been sitting on the patio before and had one do it’s war dance in my face. I have also had them attempt to feel out some nectar on a blouse I was wearing with big red hibiscus flowers on it. They aren’t afraid of much of anything or anyone. Most interesting about the Aztec god and warriors. I hadn’t heard that before.

  9. It’s always bothered me that hummingbirds seem to spend so much more time fighting than feeding; I’m still bothered now, but less puzzled. Yikes.

  10. Ours quibble and chase one another all summer, but the wars really begin just before they migrate southward to Mexico/Central America. They’re quite entertaining!

  11. One of my favorite things to watch are the elaborate displays that our hummingbirds put on to keep others away. These big, sweeping half-circle patterns- back and forth- presumably marking their territory. Fascinating little birds! (And they seem particularly protective of the Honeysuckle!)

  12. Yes, they would be really scary dudes if they were much bigger! Can you imagine giant hummingbirds flying around?! LOL. But, like you, I have a soft place in my heart for them. They are so entertaining, beautiful, and graceful–even when fighting.

  13. Oh my goodness, I missed that article! Thanks for sharing the info. Hummingbirds are great, IMO, regardless of their inclinations.

  14. An interesting post… I’m a bit surprised they are so fierce, but they obviously have an immense amount of energy when they are feeding, so it makes sense they have energy enough to fend off the enemy!

  15. I have never known you tell about hummingbirds, Jason. I do counted as some others thought they are pretty nice tiny birds, and it turned out I was wrong…

  16. fascinating insight on nature in tooth and claw – not always cuddly
    Great picture of hummingbird on cigar plant – both evidence that you are much warmer than us in the UK Jason

  17. It must make you see these lovely birds with new eyes. But savage or not they are so beautiful, I wish we had them here.

  18. Okay, so it sounds crazy, but not all ‘that’ crazy. Any experienced arborist will tell you that hummingbirds are not to be messed with. It can be amusing to see my colleagues who are not afraid of much at all fleeing from an angry hummingbird.

  19. Now that is surprising – not that they are territorial as I’ve seen many a skirmish, but that they are THAT territorial. Thug and hummingbird are not words I would have thought to put together before.

  20. Hello Jason, they’re such sweet, pretty looking little birds, but they are vicious buggers. I’m reminded that here, Robins are also highly territorial and males will scrap with each other over the Summer months, however, in winter, the harsh conditions and lack of food means this normal behaviour is suspended and an uneasy “truce” applies. Sometimes, I’ve even seen males Robins go about happily in pairs, but perhaps that’s a different kind of partnership. I wonder whether hummingbirds act similarly when food is especially scarce, or if they just gt even more aggressive.

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