Hummingbirds are commonly associated with emotions like joy and delight, but their beauty belies a dark side. These tiny birds are highly territorial, and they have no problem with using violence to defend their space.
Their aggression is an important survival strategy, however, and this behavior has evolved to ensure the success of the various hummingbird species of North, Central, and South America.
Hummingbirds are highly territorial, and this behavior benefits them in many ways. Most notably, it provides food security, and improves their chance of breeding and successfully passing on their genes. Male hummingbirds are usually the most aggressive, but females will also defend their nest sites in the breeding season.
If you feed hummingbirds, as so many American bird lovers do, you’ve probably seen these behaviors around your own feeders. Understanding their territorial behavior and knowing how to minimize conflict around your feeders can make your backyard a much more peaceful place.
Read on to learn more about why hummingbirds are so territorial and how these aggressive behaviors benefit their survival.
Two female broadtail hummingbirds fighting
Hummingbirds are territorial because the resources they need are often limited and not randomly distributed in the landscape. Nectar from flowers is a very important part of the hummingbird diet and this food source is very seasonal and can be limited to small and specific areas.
Hummingbirds will attempt to secure areas with abundant food resources and prevent other individuals from getting their share. These territories can be very small, however. In areas with rich food resources, a dominant male may have a territory of under 20 yards across.
Hummingbird territoriality has another important function when it comes to breeding. Male hummingbirds establish territories where they will display to females.
The quality of their breeding territory is an important signal to females about their fitness. The amount of food present in his territory, and the proximity of his territory to the female’s nesting area, are both important factors.
Aggression and territorial behavior is incredible important to the survival hummingbirds, as resources are often limited
Hummingbirds are fiercely competitive and will often fight to secure food resources. These birds might be small, but they are well equipped to fight and defend territories from other hummingbirds.
Hummingbird bills are adapted primarily for accessing nectar in tube-shaped flowers, but their sword-like shape also makes them a great weapon for attacking and defending against others. They can even use their amazing speed and sharp bills to attack much larger birds than themselves.
Hummingbirds are incredibly agile and speedy creatures which makes them very capable in combat. A dominant bird can use its small feet to accurately grasp an intruder’s bill as it steals food from a flower or feeder. They can also use their remarkable speed and agility to escape from predators. If a predator manages to catch them by the tail, the feathers can be lost, allowing the bird to escape unharmed.
Hummingbirds do not only rely on physical violence to defend their territories, however. Warning vocalizations are a safer and less energy-expensive method of deterring would-be thieves from their territory.
Hummingbirds use a ‘chip’ call to warn intruders, but they will also combine this call with physically chasing their competitors.
Two Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) fighting with their long beaks
Hummingbirds get territorial when they are defending valuable food sources, showing off good breeding territories to females, and when female hummingbirds are protecting their nest sites.
Hummingbirds are often most territorial during the breeding season although they can be territorial throughout the year. The exact timing of the breeding season varies between the different species.
Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) from the west coast of America usually breed between December and July, for example, while the familiar ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) of the east breed from April to September.
Some hummingbird species are more aggressively territorial than others, and this isn’t always size-dependent. The rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), for example, regularly dominates the larger species around feeders and natural food sources.
These migratory hummingbirds are aggressive at all times of the year but they can be especially aggressive while on migration because they need large amounts of food to fuel their flight.
Although Rufous Hummingbirds are small, they can be quite bold and will dominate larger hummingbird species, particularly at feeders
The females of some hummingbirds are territorial in the breeding season. They defend the areas immediately around their nests, although they may also defend nearby food sources. Female hummingbirds may benefit from defending food resources during the breeding season because they need to maintain enough energy to incubate their eggs and feed the baby hummingbirds without the help of the male.
Hummingbirds are not territorial toward humans. They may become bolder and tamer through habituation in backyards, but they probably don’t see us as any competition for nectar or nest sites.
A baby hummingbird being fed by mother
Hummingbirds have learned to identify feeders as valuable food sources and they will defend them just as they defend natural food sources like flowering plants. They can be especially territorial over concentrated food sources so aggression around feeders is very common.
Dominant hummingbirds will not only defend a single nectar feeder. These feisty birds will try to defend all the feeders in their immediate area, especially if they are all visible from each other.
Continue reading to learn how to minimize hummingbird aggression at your nectar feeders.
Two hummingbirds sharing a feeder
Hummingbirds are naturally aggressive animals so you can expect conflict if you have more than one of these birds in your yard but only a single feeder. A dominant hummingbird will usually try to defend a single nectar feeder from other visitors, although he may be willing to share.
The best way to stop hummingbirds from fighting over feeders is to set up multiple feeders in different parts of your yard. Choose several hummingbird feeders with a small number of feeding ports over just one with many feeding ports. Hummingbird feeders that are separated by physical barriers or plants that block lines of sight will prevent most territorial aggression.
Another great way to reduce fighting is to provide more food sources for other hummingbirds to take advantage of. Growing native flowering plants is an excellent way to provide a lot of natural food for the hummingbirds in your area.
If the food source is spread out and attracts a lot of birds, the most dominant bird will not be able to defend the whole area without exhausting his energy.
Setting up several feeders can avoid multiple hummingbirds using and fighting over one feeder
Hummingbirds can be very aggressive towards other species of hummingbirds around food sources because they must compete for the same resource. This behavior is known as interspecific aggression.
Hummingbirds do not only show aggression towards other hummingbirds, however. These brave little birds are known to harass birds of prey, a behavior that is known as mobbing. Hummingbirds have been seen mobbing raptors like cooper’s hawks and owls.
A 1956 study using a stuffed owl showed how bold Anna’s hummingbirds can be. These aggressive hummingbirds hovered around the head of the owl, attempting to poke its eyes with their sharp bills!
Black-chinned Hummingbird flying to Pride of Madeira flower
Hummingbirds usually avoid full-on physical fights if possible because the risk of injury is high. Chasing and vocalizing are often enough to settle territorial disputes. When fights do break out, however, these birds will usually back out before serious injury or death can occur.
Hummingbirds have been known to kill each other in serious fights. These birds have very fast metabolisms and require a steady supply of food to survive each day. In cases where food is scarce, a subordinate hummingbird could be forced to fight to the death if food is being guarded by a dominant individual.
Hummingbirds rarely, if ever, attack human beings. Habituated birds can be rather bold, however, and will occasionally fly very close to people. There is no reason to fear these birds but it may be wise to move away from the area if you are uncomfortable with the bird's behavior.
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