Hummingbirds are mesmerizing and entertaining creatures. Every year many enjoy watching them in their yard. Whether you have a flower garden or multiple feeders around your home, viewing their flight patterns is a great way to spend time outdoors surrounded by nature. However, when watching these hummingbirds, puzzling questions may arise that need answers regarding hummingbird behavior and their activity.
Why do hummingbirds chase each other: Are they playing or are they fighting?
Chasing behavior of hummingbirds is witnessed and interpreted through courtship displays of dance and territorial aggression. Aggressive male hummingbirds defend their food source from intruders. Female hummingbirds chase predators away from their nesting locations. Both exhibit playful chasing behavior when courting.
When witnessing hummingbirds chasing each other, one may tend to believe they are playing and having fun, much like young siblings. Depending on the situation, hummingbirds could also be fighting to their death for territorial space or showing off their skills to a local female observer.
Understanding and recognizing the differences in behavior takes great practice, but once identified it becomes apparent and distinguishable.
Once your trained eye adapts, it is easy to identify the friendly “cat and mouse” playful hummingbird dance vs. the aggressive territorial behavior. Hummingbird courtship begins with intrigue of a bountiful food supply and a noble steed showing his strength and stamina.
The time of year will differentiate and identify between the types of current activity. Witnessing an affectionate dance ritual usually means the courtship and mating season has officially begun. The mating rituals of hummingbirds are an extraordinary experience to observe. The playing and chasing behavior in mating is often misinterpreted as fighting so it is important to understand and identify the difference.
Male hummingbirds engage in mating dances in their designated area to attract attention to themselves and also to signal to female hummingbirds that they are ready to breed. They look impressive and larger in size by puffing out his chest and throat showing off his vibrant colorful feathers to catch the female’s attention. He may even toss his head from side to side catching the sunlight and displaying his crown and throat feathers.
Once he spots a perched female, he will rally to make his authoritative presence known by flying with his tail feathers and body outstretched to increase his size and to show off every bit of his physique.
I have also experienced watching a delightful rendezvous between a female perched and protected among a tomato plant while the male hummingbird courted her. We jokingly called it the Madonna Inn. Spoiler alert!!! He was successful.
The two commonly performed courtship displays are the “dive display” and the “shuttle display”. Below I will further explain in detail the differences.
In a dive display the intention is to catch the interest of a female hummingbird. To accomplish that a male hummingbird will increase his speed and climb 60 to as high as 130 feet up into the air. He then will turn and nose dive to the ground, aborting a last minute possible crash by diverting his direction followed by a “honking” sound. Along with his vocal signature song he will fly away to repeat his ritual dance three to four more times.
While most experts believe the honking sounds are the sonations made by tail feathers, some recent research has presented the possibility the “honking” sound is vocal.
See the National Institutes of Health study on the origins of the honking sound here…
They do this to attract the attention of a female they are pursuing and also the attention of any others in the area. This can look very intimidating but is standard procedure for hummingbirds when finding or choosing a mate. Providing these characteristics all out on display proves to a female the fitness, agility and strength of a male suitor, which are all important and highly desirable traits to pass down to future generations. The male hummingbirds bloodline is taken seriously and with great pride.
A shuttle display shows more of the playful, gentle and intimate demonstrations of affection toward a female hummingbird. This caring combination can be more seductive in winning the hand of a female over an obnoxious dive bomb display of affection.
When a female is quietly perched, the male will passionately fly back and forth in a “U” shape to gain her attention. During his presentation, the male hummingbird will produce a vocal serenade while swinging his body from side to side in front of a female creating vibrations and whistling sounds produced by expanding and contracting his tail feathers. If the female is interested, she may join him in this dance of affection.
His goal is to impress and win her over. The odds of all of his endeavors and efforts coming to fruition lies directly with her. Sometimes the male works extremely hard and ends up with an embarrassing defeat.
If the female is impressed by any courtship displays of strength she will land on a nearby perch and spread her tail feathers. This is a green light signalling to the male that he is welcome and the female is ready to mate. The actual mating process only lasts four seconds.
Once the mating is complete, the two hummingbirds will again separate and go their parted ways. The female hummingbird will carry all of the responsibility and burden while she begins to build a nest and raise her young without any assistance from the male. He on the other hand is already on his next pursuit to find another female mate.
Territories established by a hummingbird are based on an abundance of water, nectar, other food sources and nesting materials.
Male hummingbirds will often choose a quarter acre of land as their territorial space. They will chase off any males that enter their designated area to eliminate male competition.
After having established their territory, they will defend it in an attempt to encourage females into their habitat. Once they have enticed a female with their bountiful resources, they will exhibit territorial behaviors toward her during mating season with displays of affection. If there is a male hummingbird who exhibits as virulent, it will attract the female.
An inexperienced hummingbird watcher will have difficulty deciphering the difference between a courtship display and a defense move.
Females on the other hand will also define their territory by where they build their nest. A place of abundant resources are necessary for the benefit of thriving offspring. Females benefit from male territorial behavior as it aids in her protection from outside predators such as cats, rodents or birds that may attempt to raid the nest.
Varying degrees of territorial aggression can be noted depending on the species of hummingbirds. In North America, the most aggressive species is the Rufous, (Selasphorus rufus). They are petite, about 8 cm long and feel the need to compensate for their smaller stature, hence doubling up on their aggression.
There is no need to fear hummingbird aggression unless you are a predator of their territory or nest. They rarely if ever attack humans. They may fly up to you in a desire to further inspect or examine any unusual or unwanted visitors in their area that pique their curiosity. Hummingbirds know that if their lives are in danger from people, they have the capacity to quickly fly away to avert a detrimental situation.
Ways Hummingbirds Show Aggression
Hummingbirds chase and fight each other as a form of dominance or aggression. Degrees of aggression can range from vocal warning signs to physical contact. Hummingbirds show aggression in 4 easy identifiable stages:
- Warning Sounds
- Changing Postures
- Chasing Intruders
- Fighting Enemies
Warning Sounds – In most cases, the first stage or sign of aggression is exhibited by vocal warning sounds to threaten and intimidate any intruder or unwanted hummingbird opponent entering their territory. This can be different depending on the hummingbird, but will be a loud, fast-paced persistent chirping, or chittering sound. If this action does not deter the intruder, these sounds and threats will continue to increase in volume and intensity eventually culminating in physical confrontation. These quick drastic steps announce their seriousness and determination in chasing their rival away.
Changing Postures – In addition to the warning sounds, hummingbirds will change their posture to intimidate intruders. While still perched, a male hummingbird will deliberately spread and flare his tail and wing feathers to appear larger and dangerous to their opponents. Males will flare the gorget or throat feathers to show off their bright colors signaling power. They will use their bill and point it towards their enemy in a stance to state that they are ready to defend their territory at any price. The threatening postures of doubling in size and showing vigor increases his appearance to intimidate.
Chasing Intruders – When warning signals and flared stances do not produce the desired effect, then the chasing pursuit begins. The dominant hummingbird in the area may first confront and challenge an intruder who is dining at one of the many hummingbird feeders or feeding from the nectar producing flowers in their established territory. They will fiercely chase away their unwanted guests followed by enraged chirps until the intruder is considered far enough away to not cause any problems. For such a tiny bird they seem to have a lot of built up anger management issues.
Fighting Enemies– When all of the above mentioned behaviors are not effective, physical fighting becomes their last option. This behavior occurs when a stubborn enemy ignores the hint to leave and continues to come back and mock their opponent in hopes of being the more dominant male figure in the area.
Often seen is a display where the intruder after initially being chased away will make a full circle and return like a yo-yo. A technique used by the defending hummingbird to save his energy, is to patiently suspend in mid-air and await for the intruder to return. Instead of the intruder retreating, both parties will hold their ground in an attempt to intimidate each other and gain territorial advancement. During this time both hummingbirds will show their beaks and talons.
When hummingbirds begin combat they use their sharp beaks and talon claws as weapons. At this point, the less dominant hummingbird will usually retreat and fly away. If that does not occur intense physical fighting begins by ramming their bodies into each other during flight. The sound is similar to the shuffling of a deck of playing cards. This ultimate aggression is extremely dangerous and can lead to severe injury or even death. May the best hummingbird win!
Ways to Decrease Hummingbird Aggression
If you own a hummingbird feeder, you will witness that there is always that one bullying hummingbird who takes great pride in chasing away his opponents. He is not even interested in feeding from the feeder nor is he even hungry. He just enjoys chasing and bullying!
At times this simple chasing can be entertaining and fun to watch, but there is a point when his dominance is too much to bare and your heart reaches out to the rest of the hummingbirds who just want some peace and quiet while feeding! Having an overly aggressive hummingbird can ruin the fun for everyone. Here are the 4 things you can do to lower aggression.
- Increase the number of hummingbird feeders
- Evenly distribute hummingbird feeders
- Feeder placement
- Perching locations
Increase the Number of Hummingbird Feeders
Having one feeder for a population of hummingbirds will only increase aggression. If there are multiple hummingbirds visiting, additional feeders may be needed. Increasing the number of feeders expands the workload of the dominant aggressive hummingbird when attempting to protect all of the feeders. This in turn decreases his ability to guard every feeder all of the time and allows that hungry quiet hummingbird to slip in and have an opportunity to feed.
Evenly Distribute Hummingbird Feeders
Feeding is one of the biggest reasons for hummingbird aggression and a main reason hummingbirds become territorial. The more land and territory filled with flowering plants, hummingbird feeders and protein, the more likely to attract a territorial male hummingbird who has decided to take up residence.
When hummingbird feeders are spaced further apart it reduces territorial aggression by making the aggressor work twice as hard to defend his food supply. If the aggressor has to expend more energy to defend his food source by flying to each corner of his territory, it creates an opportunity for less aggressive hummingbirds to fly in and feed before he returns.
Adding feeders in strategic locations provides every hummingbird the opportunity to feed. Place the feeding stations out of sight from one another. For example, by adding a feeding station in the front yard and backyard using your home as the barrier allows for two hummingbirds to feed without realizing there is competition. Even if there is a bully perched high on a tree branch with a view of both feeders he cannot guard both locations at the same time.
If you have one particularly aggressive hummingbird in the area that is chasing everyone away, first locate and identify his desired perching station. Notice that the hummingbird has figured out his best vantage point to keep a watchful eye on his desired feeder and will have established an effective flight pattern of entering and exciting his well calculated terrain. He will attack, then return to his designated perch allowing him to conserve energy effectively when protecting his territory.
In my experience, hummingbirds love to perch on tomato cages. The wires are small enough for the hummingbird’s claws to wrap around allowing a stable perch. There are various heights from which the hummingbird can perch. If a plant is growing around a tomato cage, the hummingbird will feel covered and protected while maintaining the perfect viewpoint and perspective. However to discourage this behavior, remove or relocate the tomato cage.
On multiple occasions, I have witnessed a dominant hummingbird perched on his tomato cage throne protecting his feeder. He may choose to be visible and show off his redneck or he hides on the bottom tier in the foliage ready for a surprise combat attack on any new invaders; a highly effective technique.
As a last resort if aggression around your feeders does not diminish territorial issues, removal or cutting down their chosen branch will force the bully to find a new location. However, remember these hummingbirds also have their own personalities and your action of removing their initial perch may just cause them to relocate with their aggression to a different location.
Playful courtship displays and territorial aggression are the two top reasons why hummingbirds chase each other.
Posture is an easy identifying factor when understanding if a hummingbird is playing or fighting!
Happy Hummingbird Watching!