Category Archives: ethology

Hummingbirds, our summer clowns and warriors

Female ruby-throated hummingbird at feeder.

Jen and I get a great kick out of watching the hummingbirds, ruby-throated and others, that visit our patio all summer — they swarm and kick up in great clouds of territorial aggression, as many as 12 to 15 at a time, lately, with the weather cooling, these tiny aerial warriors that lord it over an area of maybe 1,000 square feet.

The males are especially aggressive, driving away Lilliputian rivals in aerial combat. Many collect, and hide, in a neighbor’s big maple. Do they sense each other there? Do they attack even in that covert?

The birds seem to expend more energy driving away their rivals from the feeder than they do in feeding. One perches on the rim of the feeder and just stands there, body tense, warily waiting and watching for interceptors. As soon as a rival approaches, the percher lights after him, and the two describe crazy aggressive circles in the air, as if they were all von Richthofens.

Yes, we’ve been cooling this late August. It won’t be too long, a month or so, before the rubies fly south, abandoning their fiercely held Arkansas territory. We will miss them, of course, sitting at the table on the patio  looking upward in vain.

Still, these feisty Lilliputians set an example we really don’t need to follow. They chase away all comers from the feeder, though there’s nectar (sugar water) aplenty. Though polygynous, the males guard their females zealously, jealously. Hey, guys, we feel like shouting out, there’s enough for everyone! (Food, females.) They put out so much energy in jealous defense that you’d think they’d wear themselves out. And yet they may live, the ruby-throated variety of these smallest of all birds, as much as nine years  and, so, make nine round-trips, self-propelled, of course, to the tropics, more than most of us will ever make or ever dream of making.

All hail, then, Lilliputians of the air! Your iridescence amazes us. Your feistiness and flightiness make us laugh. Your talent for survival, against huge odds, astounds and heartens. Prosit! We raise a cup of our nectar, a pinot noir say or summer chardonnay, and toast you!