Rufous Hummingbird Mayhem

My nectar brings all the birds to the yard.

You know, we really don’t need these hummingbird feeders at our place.

In principle, we don’t need to feed the birds at all. I get that. And when I talk to groups as a naturalist, I often find myself saying, “Create the habitat. Let the plants grow; let the bugs flourish. Then the birds will feed themselves.”

And we do that. In the seven years since we moved to this 3/4 acre property, we have fenced out the invasive deer and allowed the understory to grow back. We have planted native salmonberry, thimbleberry, June plum, and snowberry; we have added pollinator-friendly perennials (and we are now bumblebee central, I’m pleased to say.)

male rufous hummingbird
It’s like he’s got little mean eyebrows.

We have added honeysuckle and crocosmia and fuchsia and anything else that looks tubular and gorgeous that might provide nectar for hummingbirds.

And they do seem to appreciate it. It’s a treat to watch them poke their way into a Magellanic fuchsia and tip it back like a fancy soda straw.

male rufous hummingbird
Settling in to survey his territory.

But we also have a couple of hummingbird feeders.

Okay, five. We have five hummingbird feeders. And when the rufous hummingbirds arrive (usually mid-March in our area, though this year they were tardy), it’s mayhem. At any given moment of the day yesterday there were at least a half-dozen hummingbirds jostling for positions at the feeders, chasing each other away, diving and calling and waggle-dancing for prospective mates.

Tom is responsible for refilling them and we go through a full bag of sugar every week or so.

The males are aggressive.

We have two male rufous (and a male Anna’s) at the moment. We recognize each rufous as the green-back and the red-back, and they seem to have a bit of an uneasy truce over sharing the neighbourhood.

male rufous hummingbird
They like a perch where they can watch two or three of the feeders at once

They are harem breeders, you see. They know that the females are attracted to our place because of the food supply, and their goal is to breed with as many as possible. Males have got absolutely no role in raising the young; the females just need them for their genes. But the competition to contribute those genes appears to be fierce, and hummingbirds are known for their energetic mating dive displays, which in the case of rufous hummingbirds usually ends with a signature “zeeee-chuppity-chup” call. It’s pretty cute.

Hummingbirds are assertive.

Female hummingbirds are pretty aggressive, too, actually. When they’re hungry they’ll back down from nobody for a chance to get a meal (in addition to nectar they eat a lot of aphids and other small insects.) Hummingbirds have good spatial memories and are able to recall—in their tiny brains—which flowers are producing nectar and how often they are likely to replenish. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not particularly attracted to red but will remember the colour of whichever plant is producing nectar. Like many birds, their colour vision is probably more nuanced than our own; they can see into the UV spectrum.

female rufous hummingbird
That’s the female. Look at that beak.

In a month or so, we’ll suddenly see swarms of newly-fledged hummers trying to figure out how to sip from flowers and feeders. They’re awkward and a bit slow but it doesn’t take them long to figure it all out. They don’t have much time; they’ve got a long route ahead of them. Measured in body-lengths, rufous hummingbirds have the longest migration route in the world. Males vacate our area first, and most are gone by late June. Females and young stick around through August, and then it gets very quiet around here, with a few tough Anna’s hummingbird sticking it out through the winter.

They don’t sit still for long.

A New World Bird

If you live anywhere east of the Rockies, chances are you’ve strictly got ruby-throated hummingbirds, and if you live in Europe or anywhere other than the Americas, you’ve got no hummingbirds at all (though some of your moths look a lot like them at a distance.)

If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing hummingbirds up close, I can’t recommend it enough. Make your way to the west during the late spring and summer, or if you’re the adventurous type, plan a birding trip to Central or South America where the diversity of hummingbirds is just amazing. Bring a camera with a fast shutter speed, and lots and lots of storage. You’ll need it.

female rufous hummingbird
See you soon.

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2 thoughts on “Rufous Hummingbird Mayhem”

  1. Great article. Thank you. For the last few years, I have been helping with the banding of hummingbirds. Wonderful little creatures ! Grouse Mountain is part of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network which has a group of monitoring stations from Mexico up towards Alaska. The primary focus of the network is to study the Rufous Hummingbird and it’s migratory pathways. As part of the study other species of hummingbirds are also monitored.

  2. We live in a wooded community in Chatham County North Carolina and we’ve had one male Rufous hummingbird here since Nov. 4. We named him Rusty as he’s a first year make with his plumage and gorget just developing. When he first arrived I had two large pineapple sage bushes in full bloom and he enjoyed those, but now he works in the garden eating insects on the greens, lettuce, mustard, etc. We also out down some very ripened bananas to attract the fruit flies. On really cold evenings we’ve brought the feeder in at total darkness and rehung it before dawn the next day. One month and counting…so he may stay to overwinter and we’re ready to assist. Thanks for your article.


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