Come Strong for the Sugar Water
Whenever we visit the house on Torrey Mesa (Utah), we put some sugar water in a hummingbird feeder and hang it from the awning over the back porch. Within a couple of hours, the hummingbirds start to show up. We see three different hummingbird species in this arid, high elevation spot: Rufous Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. They’re often skittish at first. After a couple of days, though, they come to tolerate our presence on the porch nearby. Indeed, the boys even get hummingbirds to land on their fingers to feed.
Hummingbirds are tiny and delicate, but they are notoriously aggressive. You can see it at times in competition over flowers, but the tension is on full display at sugar water feeders. Putting a hummingbird feeder out is a little like smashing open a pinata in front of a half-dozen seventh-grade bullies. Free sugar brings out screaming, stomping, and, occasionally, violent behavior. With dagger-like, and sometimes serrated, bills, these scrums are no joke.
At any given time, there is usually one hummingbird that we call “The Boss” around the feeder. This hummingbird furiously guards the feeder, chasing away other hummingbirds that come around. The Boss will set up on a branch on one of two juniper trees, each about 50 feet from the feeder. When a hungry hummingbird flies in toward the feeder, The Boss darts from the juniper and heads straight for the invader at full speed. Most are quick enough to avoid the assault. At times, though, contact is made. Usually, the confrontation is mostly bluster: harsh calling and a full display of tail feathers. Sometimes, The Boss gets tired of flying in from the junipers, and just sits atop the feeder and guard the juice.
An individual doesn’t stay The Boss for long. In four days, we’ve had at least 3 different identifiable bosses. Two have been Rufous Hummingbirds (one female Boss, and one male Boss), and the other a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Our best guess for the turnover: it is exhausting to be The Boss. It takes a ton of energy to chase away other hummingbirds. Not only is it tiring, it can become futile. As the number of hummingbirds to chase away increases, The Boss simply can’t maintain control of the feeder.
Yesterday, I witnessed an epic hummingbird battle. The Boss was a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. When a female Rufous Hummingbird came to the feeder, the Boss did the usual thing. (I think it’s a female Rufous. It may be a female Broad-tailed). He flew in from the juniper and attempted to stab the Rufous Hummingbird with his bill. A short duel occurred in the sky near the feeder, with both birds screeching and spreading their tail feathers wide. Instead of tucking tail and flying off, the female Rufous stood her ground. She had no idea what she was up against.
What happened next was something I had never seen, nor did I ever imagine I’d see. Neither hummingbird would back down. After a few seconds of aerial jousting, the Black-chinned got above the Rufous and drove her to the ground. It looked like a wrestling match for a couple of seconds. Then, the action stopped. To my shock, the Black-chinned Hummingbird had landed on the Rufous Hummingbird’s bill. He was standing there, flapping his wings for balance, just dominating the Rufous Hummingbird. He didn’t let go for almost 10 seconds. Amazingly, I had my camera at the ready and got a couple of shots.
The constant fighting led to a family discussion. Are we doing these birds right by offering up free food in a scarce environment? Or are we Romans at the Coliseum watching tiny gladiators battle for our own amusement? And what are the psychological ramifications of having another hummingbird stand on your bill while you’re prostrate on the ground? Yes, somewhat, and fleeting, if you ask me.
I guess it comes down to your motive for putting the feeder up. Do you watch a Nascar race for the competition or just hoping to see the “big one” crash? I think the same battles may go on over a particularly tasty plant in the wilderness. I don’t think the birds will starve when you go home. Maybe the feeder is like your two week vacation to the birds. The humans will go home and life will return to normal.