"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Monday, February 7, 2022

Hummingbird Wars

A male Allen's hummingbird claims a feeder after running off the competition.


           Here's my latest column scheduled to run in the Southern California News Group newspapers, including The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press Telegram, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, The Daily Breeze, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and the Riverside Press-Enterprise on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.


            It’s all-out war when a tiny tyrant decides to claim a nectar feeder.

Gail O’Connell has a resident bully bird on her patio in Laguna Niguel. “He sits near our feeder and swoops down anytime another hummingbird shows up,” she said. “Though occasionally he’ll let a female drink.”

While the antics of this miniature brute may be fascinating to watch, it can be frustrating when he chases all the other birds away, she said.

Bullies are a common problem for bird enthusiasts with flowering gardens and hummingbird feeders. Some people have even nicknamed these ruffians Rambo, Brutus, Spike, or the name of the current enforcer on their favorite hockey team. And these little birds earn their titles; male hummingbirds are fierce fighters and rarely play nice.

These birds are not only mean, but sneaky as well, generally hiding in a spot where they can secretly monitor their personal food supply. Then these feisty fliers use their aerial skills to launch an attack on unsuspecting would-be nectar thieves.

As with most creatures in the wild, fights are all about food, territory and breeding rights.

            “Most animals are territorial, but male hummingbirds are especially territorial,” said Terry Masear, a licensed hummingbird rehabilitator and author of “Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.

“They’re doing what they’re programmed to do,” Masear said. “His only purpose in life is to breed. They’re individualists; they don’t mate for life like ducks and ravens. So, they claim a territory where they can breed with as many females as possible.”

Hummingbirds appear tiny and delicate: the average weight of most Southern California species is about three grams, she said. Despite their size, they are hardy and resilient with some species migrating as much as 3,000 miles.

Though Masear now lives in Portland, Oregon, she still monitors the telephone rescue line based in West Hollywood and plans to return to Los Angeles to participate in a documentary based on her book, which will be filmed by the Australian company Wildbear Entertainment in April. 

She’s learned a lot about hummingbirds during her 15 years providing rehabilitation.

            “Just like people, hummingbirds have different personalities,” she said. “Some are sweet like little puppies. And some are so wild, if they were big enough, they’d take you out.”

            Male aggressors can be brutal. “These winged warriors are hardwired to fight to the death,” she said. They can use their bills like swords to skewer their opponent. And because they can fly 50-60 miles per hour in a downward arch, males can use their speed to impale a competitor. “When this happens, the other bird has no chance,” she said.

            As a rehabber, Masear has seen plenty of these casualties of war. She recently received a call about a female hummingbird covered in blood. It was clear from the photo sent by rescuers that the bird had a hole in her neck and back. “Sometimes if they sit on a feeder too long, they become a target for these brutal attacks.”

Some hummingbird species such as the Allen’s and rufous, can be especially belligerent, she said. “Rufous hummingbirds are monstrous.”  

“Bullies get hurt too and tend to end up in rehab a lot themselves.” Their constant battles also shorten their longevity. “It’s a tough world out there.”

            Females can also be aggressive when they’re nesting, she said. “Babies are their reason for living.”

            But there are moments of peace in the garden. Just before dark, or before a heavy rain, there’s something Masear calls the “the law of the jungle.” The birds don’t fight as much during these times. They won’t waste energy on sparing because they need to eat as much as they can, this is especially true in winter when nights are longer, she said.  

            If you want to keep peace at your feeder, Masear has a simple solution: add more feeders. First, determine the bully’s hiding place, then install clusters of feeders out of his line of vision, so they’re too far apart for him to dominate; it’s too much work, she said.  

            Kristi Stowell Cole of Laguna Hills hung 18 feeders around the perimeter of her house to stop the constant battles. Her feeders attract so many birds that often the ports are not only filled, but birds are sharing ports with additional birds waiting in the wings.  

            We have a few territorial bullies, but with multiple feeders, they usually lose out on their attempt to monopolize them,” Cole said. Even so, she’s witnessed fights, such as the juvenile male that was knocked to the ground by a particularly angry Anna’s.

            When she attempted to pick up the bird on the ground, the attacker flew to her hand to continue the fight, gripping the young bird’s head with its feet and stabbing it in the back, she said.

            The little guy didn’t survive. She buried him in her backyard memorial garden where the mosaic stepping stone she created honors the little jewels of her garden.




Contact the writer: Jennifer J. Meyer is a freelance writer from Mission Viejo.  Write to her at jjthebackyardbirder@gmail.com or visit her blog at jjthebackyardbirder.com.

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