Last updated: 17 November 2023
Suppose you’re lucky enough to live in a spot where you’re able to regularly watch hummingbirds at a nectar feeder or foraging at natural wildflower meadows. In that case, you may have witnessed their feisty interactions. Chases between individual hummingbirds can be playful, but may also have a more confrontational cause.
To understand more about this behavior, we’ll be answering the question of why do hummingbirds chase each other. If you’d like to find out what causes these clashes, then please keep reading.
As territorial birds, hummingbirds will go to great lengths to defend a nesting or feeding site, and these interactions quickly become physical and confrontational, involving chasing and full-blown fights. However, chases can also form part of the hummingbird’s courtship and mating rituals.
What hummingbirds lack in size, they more than make up for in attitude, and fierce clashes between individuals at feeding stations are not a rarity. Males show particular aggression when defending a food source and will attempt to drive away competitors. Females seem more concerned with protecting their eggs and nest, and will actively chase off any potential threat.
Not all chasing behavior has a sinister or aggressive motive, and in the breeding season, almost flirtatious chases form an important element of their courtship. Unlike territorial behavior, courtship chases do not involve aggression, but lively displays to attempt to catch the attention of a female.
To learn more about the interactions of hummingbirds and to learn to tell the difference between a clash and a potential match, please read on.
Pictured: A Female White-chested Emerald Hummingbird with her tail flared defending her territory
Hummingbirds are notoriously feisty and will fiercely defend a territory against unwanted intruders, as well as protect access to a nectar feeder or area of wildflowers and keep a vigilant watch over a nest site. Males are particularly territorial in defense of their territory, which they claim early in the spring and summer. Females are by no means placid birds, aggressively defending nest sites and young from intruders.
Rufous Hummingbirds have a reputation as the worst-tempered birds in North America, and territorial fights can escalate quickly from noisy interactions, with fast-paced buzzing and chirping used as a first port of call to warn off intruders. Threatening postures, with a raised crown and flared tail and gorget may also be successful in intimidating encroaching birds.
If the threat persists, physical interactions may follow, including hovering in front of and dive-bombing displays above a rival. Chasing is a common element of territorial behavior, with an angry, dominant bird charging directly at the unwanted visitor, and chasing them a long way away, using noisy buzzing and squawking to reinforce the message.
Physical fights are often a last resort, with the territorial hummingbird ramming into its rival in flight and swiping using their bill and wings.
Pictured: A Rufous Hummingbird flaring his gorget. Rufous Hummingbirds have a reputation as the worst-tempered birds in North America
Not all hummingbird chases are sinister in intent, and more playful, less violent chases form a key element of courtship pairings at the outset of the breeding season.
Hummingbird mating rituals are fascinating to watch, particularly the build-up, which sees males performing an impressive routine, which involves chases, dances, and colorful displays of plumage while plunging repeatedly in front of a prospective mate to show off their acrobatic skills.
The male hummingbird then performs a series of U-shaped flights around a perched female, and if interested, the female hummingbird will engage in the chasing, and allow the male to mate with her. The difference between courtship chases and territorial pursuits is the lack of aggression in the former, and the focus being on showing off plumage and agility, rather than intense and aggressive confrontation.
Pictured: A pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Hummingbird mating rituals are fascinating to watch
Male hummingbirds are particularly territorial over a food source, both in natural wildflower meadows and nectar feeders supplied by humans. Hummingbirds have a super-fast metabolism and need to consume large quantities of food each day to meet their energy needs.
Access to feeding sites is vital all year round, but especially in the fall ahead of migration, when you may notice aggression levels step up a notch. Hummingbirds competing for food will defend prime feeding sites to ensure they have sufficient food ahead of their long journeys. They have a natural instinct to compete for food, stemming from foraging in wildflower meadows where once a nectar source is depleted, they have to search further afield.
Despite artificial nectar feeders being regularly topped up by householders, this instinct to defend a food source without sharing it remains strong.
A dominant male at a feeding site visited by many other hungry hummingbirds will certainly lead to eventful mealtimes. But there are some tactics you can try to introduce that may succeed in reducing stress levels all around.
One answer is to introduce extra feeders in your yard, spaced a good distance apart and placed at varying heights, even partly concealed by vegetation. One aggressive individual will be unable to defend every feeder, giving other birds a chance to feed in peace.
Pictured: A Broad-tailed Hummingbird (left) and Female Rufous Hummingbird (right) fighting over a food source
By observing closely, you should be able to tell if the interactions are aggressive or more playful. If you notice a hummingbird chasing one particular individual, incorporating flashes of plumage, dive-bombing, and elaborate flight displays, it’s most likely to be a hopeful male trying to impress a potential mate.
If the chase you’re witnessing involves noisy vocalizations and confrontational charges, then it’s most likely to be a territorial male wanting to drive a competitor off his patch.
On occasions, hummingbird clashes can escalate violently, with pairs prepared to fight to the death. Fatal fights over access to feeders are rare, but serious and even deadly injuries can often be sustained as hummingbirds are so fragile and easily damaged by stabbing sharp bills and powerful wing strikes.
Rufous Hummingbirds are known to be particularly vicious in their territorial defense, and will successfully and violently drive away other hummingbird species, using physical contact without hesitation if needed. Even much larger bird species, including Blue Jays, may be attacked in an attempt to force them to leave a territory.
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