As the hummingbirds continue to arrive and claim territories for the season, here’s some general information on their biology and ecology over the next few months.
In spite of their small size, male hummingbirds are among the most irascible creatures on the planet. During the breeding season when testosterone levels are at their peak, these tiny birds become tiny terrors, often venting their anger on whomever happens to be nearby. Each one has the attitude that he is the king of the universe, and is always ready to take on any challenges.
Often their territorial defenses go beyond members of their own kind, and it’s not unusual to see wrens, titmouses, chickadees, cardinals or even larger species become objects of a male (or female) hummingbird’s wrath.
Hummingbirds do not pair up for the season; they live separate lives. Males have three principal interests; basically to eat, fight and mate with as many females as possible. Females are equally independent, seeking to eat, defend their nesting area, and raise as many offspring as they can during their time here. Males take no part in the rearing of offspring. He spends his time feeding, guarding his territory, and looking for opportunities to mate with as many females as possible. Males allow females into their territory in order to perform display flights for them. He will orient the female so her back is to the sun, which provides the maximum brilliance of his colorful throat feathers (known as his gorget,) and then proceeds to go through his repertoire. Different hummer species perform different display fights.
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A ruby-throated’s display includes flying back and forth in front of the female in a u-shape pattern, occasionally moving to a side-to-side or shuttle motion (sometimes these same maneuvers are performed as an aggressive display to an intruder into his territory.) If the female is duly impressed, they usually fly to a nearby perch where they mate. If she’s not receptive to his advances, the male will often chase her from his territory, and wait for his next opportunity.
If the female is receptive and they mate, she goes alone to build her nest, lay eggs and raise offspring. Female hummingbirds are impressive engineers when it comes to nestconstruction. She chooses a site usually beneath a clump of leaves or needles in order to offer protection from rain and full sun, and uses spider or caterpillar silk interwoven with tiny twigs, bits of leaves, etc., then covers the outside with bits of lichen to help camouflage the structure. Spider silk is deemed stronger than steel for its size, and due to it elastic properties allows the nest to stretch to accommodate her growing chicks.