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Lady hummingbirds of the world — Unite

By Paul Viau | Sep 07, 2016
Photo by: File photo HUMMER HIJINKS — It's a male vs. female aerial battle at the hummingbird feeders this time of year — Time for the hens to assert themselves.

For several years, my wife and I have watched and marveled at the aerobatic antics of the tiniest of birds — the hummingbirds. We deck-sit every April, watching and waiting in keen anticipation — hoping that the male ‘scout’ hummingbirds will: (1) find our bright, red feeders; (2) sample the perfectly-prepared nectar; and (3) spread the word to all interested hummers.

This year, as in all years past, we were rewarded for our efforts with at least one ruby red-throat male and his lady friends.

Actually, the female hummingbirds are called hens. And I am grateful that hummingbirds are so small, or the Perdue people might cram them in a multi-acre hen-house.

By the way, the male hummingbirds are not called cocks (I can’t say that in a Mountaineer column). Male hummingbirds are simply called — ‘males.’ And a group of hummingbirds are called — most appropriately — a ‘charm.’

Boy-howdy, can hummingbirds charm human beings. We are completely mesmerized as the buzz, bob, weave, hover — and eventually sink their long beaks into the nectar.

Did you know? — Hummingbirds don’t really dip their beaks into nectar, they have very long tongues for that. We can’t see them with the human eye — just like we can’t see their wings flapping at an unbelievable 12-80 times per second while they hover, otherwise seemingly motionless.

Actually, the Ruby Red Throat hummingbird — by far the most common hummer in America — flaps its wings about 50 times per second, and amazingly the ‘lift’ created by the flapping is created on both the down ad up motion of the hummingbird’s wing.

Even more extraordinary, the hummingbird wings flap in a more circular motion, which is how/why hummingbirds are the only bird species that can fly backwards.

For my ‘Baby Boomer’ Beatles fans, if you play the sound of a hummingbird wings flapping backwards, you can faintly hear, “I buried Paul.” — Just kidding.

The reference to Paul McCartney reminds I am writing about the ultimate birds with the fastest of “Wings,” as in “Band on the Run.”

Speaking of things ‘on the run,’ of all the hummingbird antics my wife and I have observed during our eight-and-a-half years living in hummer-heaven, the most puzzling to us is how the male hummers incessantly chase the females from the feeders. They guard the feeders so well, it’s a wonder any females survive at all.

So what is driving this terribly-territorial hummingbird behavior? And what can the females do to get their fair share of the nectar?

Did you know? — Scientists have studied hummingbird territorial behavior for decades, and have carefully documented that the male ruby-throated hummers establish non-overlapping feeding territories immediately on arrival to their summer spring/summer breeding grounds. Those territories can be as large as one-quarter acre.

That’s a lot of territory for such a tiny bird to cover, but (as you well know) hummingbirds are both quick and agile. If a high-speed, strafing pass doesn’t chase intruders away, the male hummers will engage in a short battle — and feathers can fly.

For the most part, scientists agree, the hummingbirds are just ‘doing what comes naturally.’

Most of the hummer-hostility is males protecting their territory, but the males will also chase away females until they mate with him. At this point, the females usually get feeding privileges.

After breeding season is over, all the territorial battles are strictly food oriented. Several hummingbirds — both males and females — will try to dominate the feeder, and often several females will gain dominance of a territory, and chase the males away. You go, girls.

We have observed this ‘lady time at the feeder’ at area resorts where one or two large feeders are surrounded by ‘the wide open spaces.’

At home, however, every night is a dog (or should I say, bird) fight — and some nights are real ‘hummers.’

By the way, having multiple feeders at different points around the perimeter of your home will help quell the skirmishes. And the fresher the nectar in the feeders, the better show.

Happy hummer hijinks.