HUMMINGBIRD BEHAVIOR

1. FLIGHT
Blue-throated Hummingbird (34287 bytes) Hummingbirds can fly right, left, up, down, backwards, even upside down. While other birds get their flight power from the downstroke only, hummingbirds have strength on the up-stroke, as well.
A hummingbird's wing is flexible at the shoulder, but inflexible at the wrist.

When hovering, hummingbirds hold their bodies upright and flap their wings horizontally in a shallow figure-8. As the wings swing back they tilt flat for a moment before the wings are drawn

Most hummingbirds flap their wings about 50 or so times a second. This means all we can see is a blur. The Magnificent Hummingbird is an exception; sometimes it flaps it wings slow enough for individual wing beats to be perceived. 

The tiny feet of hummingbirds are almost useless except for perching; if hummers want to travel two inches, they must fly. Hummingbirds lift from perches without pushing off; they rise entirely on their own power, flapping their wings at almost full speed before lifting off. Though they fly very fast, they can suddenly stop and make a soft landing. They are so light they do not build up much momentum.

To learn about Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and migration, click here.

 

2. FEEDING

Hummers have a fast breathing rate, a fast heartbeat, and a high body temperature. They must feed every 10 minutes or so all day, and they may consume 2/3 of their body weight in a single day.A major part of a hummingbird's diet is sugar. They get it from flower nectar and tree sap. Hummers also need protein in order to build muscles, so they eat insects and pollen. The tongue of a hummingbird has grooves on the side, which are used to catch insects in the air--also from leaves and spider webs.
Hummingbird bills are long and tapered, perfectly suited for probing into the center of tubular flowers for the nectar, which they take up at the rate of about 13 licks a second. Often one can see long translucent tongues spilling out of their long beaks, licking the air, as they approach bright colored flowers.
Hummers have good memory; they can remember food sources from previous years. As they feed hummers accidentally collect pollen as they feed and move from flower to flower, they help the flowers to reproduce. Many flowers, like penstemons, seem to be specifically designed to accommodate hummingbirds.

Two short articles by Fernando Ortiz Crespo:

How Hummingbirds Catch Insects

Studying Pollen on Hummingbird Bills

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3. DISPLAY
Hummingbirds communicate with one another by making visual displays. Males sometimes raise the feathers bordering the gorget and toss their heads from side to side, while uttering shrill sounds. Females and young are more likely to do perched displays in which they spread their tail feathers to show the white tips.

Sometimes both males and females do shuttle-flights, which are rapid back and forth movements in front of another bird. During the shuttle flight, the tail and gorget may be displayed.

Dive display are only done by the males. At key points in the dive, buzzing, whistling, or popping sounds might be made with the wing feathers or the vocal cords. The trajectory of the dive is U-shaped. At the top of the arc, the bird may be quite high in the air

.4. COURTSHIP

Hummingbirds communicate with one another by making visual displays. Males sometimes raise the feathers bordering the gorget and toss their heads from side to side, while uttering shrill sounds. Females and young are more likely to do perched displays in which they spread their tail feathers to show the white tips.

Sometimes both males and females do shuttle-flights, which are rapid back and forth movements in front of another bird. During the shuttle flight, the tail and gorget may be displayed.

Dive display are only done by the males. At key points in the dive, buzzing, whistling, or popping sounds might be made with the wing feathers or the vocal cords. The trajectory of the dive is U-shaped. At the top of the arc, the bird may be quite high in the air.

The narrowly-focused shuttle dance of the male is usually part of a courtship ritual. After finding a ready female, he flies in front of her in short, rapid arcs. The dance field may be about ten inches wide.

We once saw a black-chinned hummingbird shuttle like this in front of a female that was perched in a mesquite. Looking intimidated, she moved her head back and forth to watched his awesome arial movements, which were only inches from her face; then she hung upside-down by her toes as he mounted her.

In some hummingbirds--mostly species that are south of the border--the males gather in communities, which are called leks. Then they all sing together to try to entice females to come into the neighborhood for mating.

5. TERRITORY

Male and female hummingbirds establish separate territories--she to build a nest and feed her young, he just to protect a reliable food source. The male takes no interest in nests or the care and feeding of babies. When females enter his territory, he does aerial displays to keep them away. The males and females mate on neutral ground.

6. FIGHTING

Hummingbirds compete for nectar and insects. They guard their territories fiercely, perching high near flowering bushes or feeders. Anna's hummingbird puffs itself up to look large. In duels the hummers use their bills and claws as weapons. They sometimes collide with a loud thud. I recently saw two blue-throated hummingbirds fighting over a feeder. The perched bird raised its head and held out its wings while the other dive bombed it from above. They flapped their wings against one another and jabbed with their long bills, then they locked those bills together and started spinning, drifting slowly down to the ground, creating a blurred, whirling circle of blue and black. Reaching the ground, they kicked up dust with their wingtips. Finally their bills came apart and one of them flew off across the dry creek bed while the winner returned to the feeder.
Actually hummers are seldom harmed by these fights, though they may occasionally lose a few back feathers. Their instincts tell them not to risk damage to their precious bill. Also, they fight less when food is scarce. Occasionally hummers attack other birds, even hawks and crows.

Though they don't attack human beings, it's sometimes frightening to have a whirring blur of feathers and a needle-like beak zoom by just a few inches from your face.

7. SONG

Hummers make a number of unmusical calls, from deep gutterals to high pitched chirp. A few like the Anna's have a feeble, muttering, scratchy sputtering song; it is used by the male to established and protect a territory. Many hummers will emit a loud chatter when their territory is invaded.

8. COURTSHIP

In courtship the male first finds a ready female then lures her through posturing and sound. Then he engages in a nuptial flight during which he may repeatedly fly in a large U-shaped pattern.

9. GROOMING

Hummers preen themselves with their bills and claws. Using oil from a gland near their tail they groom their wings, abdomen, tail feathers and back. Stroke by stroke they tend to the veins of each feather. Hummers often groom their heads and necks with their feet, uses the front three claws like a comb. Sometimes they will groom their beak or neck by rubbing them against a twig.

Sometimes a grooming hummer will grasp its bill and slide along it with its claws.

Hummers also take sunbaths, positioning their breast towards the sun and fluffing out. They extend their neck and spread their tail. They may stretches one wing then the other, then lowers their head while stretching the wings upward.

10. BATHING

Hummingbirds like to take a bath on a cupped leaf or a shallow pool. They flutter their wings or pull them straight back while lifting and spreading their tail; they dip their chins and bellies into the water. Sometimes a bathing hummer will throw its head back to toss droplets on its back. After bathing the bird will preen and dry its feathers. Hummingbirds also take shower baths while on the wing, and they sometimes sit in the rain on bare branch with feathers ruffled up so they can soak their skin. One more thing hummingbirds like to do is to play in the fine mist of sprinklers. One woman, watering her flowers, had a hummer dart several times through the mist of her garden hose, then finally land on her hand.

11. SLEEP

Hummingbirds sleep with their neck retracted and their head forward, the bill pointed up at a sharp angle, and the feathers fluffed. On cold nights some hummers go into a torpor.

12. STRETCHING

Two sketches by Paul A. Johnsgard (used with permission): h-stretch.jpg (11098 bytes)