Even small birds can have bad tempers, as any backyard birder who feeds hummingbirds well knows. These tiny birds can have the biggest attitudes, and hummingbird aggression can be both entertaining to watch and a problem for other hummingbirds at backyard feeders when one aggressive bird may chase many others away from the feeding area.
Many birds show aggression when they feel their breeding territories or feeding areas are violated by unwelcome intruders. Among North American hummingbirds, the rufous hummingbird has one of the worst tempers, but all hummingbird species may show anger and aggression to varying degrees. Aggressive behavior is typically strongest in late spring or early summer when the birds are claiming territory and defending nests, but the angriest hummingbirds may still be aggressive well into the fall as they defend prime feeding territories to prepare for migration. Male hummingbirds are often more aggressive at feeders while females show more aggression near their nests, but with both genders, this angry bird behavior can be amazing to witness.
How Hummingbirds Show Aggression
Hummingbirds may be small, but they have a formidable array of weapons and threats at their disposal to discourage unwelcome visitors. When a hummingbird feels threatened, it may show aggression in a variety of ways, including:
- Sounds: Loud, fast-paced chirping is one way to get an intruder's attention and let them know the area is already claimed. When a resident hummingbird spots an intruder, it may raise the volume or quicken the pace of its songs and calls to advertise its territorial claim.
- Posture: Threat postures show off a hummingbird's size and strength to discourage unwelcome guests. A male hummingbird may flare his gorget to show off its colors more brightly, a sign of his strength and health that could dissuade intruders. Other threat postures include flaring the tail, spreading or raising the wings and pointing the bill at the intruder.
- Dives: An angry hummingbird may first hover in front of the intruder – whether it is another hummingbird, another animal or even a human – and then fly high above them before diving nearly straight down right at the intruder. The base of the dive is usually marked with a sharp chirp sound made from the tail feather position, and that sound acts as another warning to unwelcome guests.
- Chase: Chasing away intruders is a common way hummingbirds show aggression. A dominant hummingbird may first confront the intruder, often at a feeding area, before charging at them and following them far away from the feeder or flowerbeds. These chases are often accompanied by angry chirps and other sounds.
- Fighting: Fighting is often the last resort for showing aggression and discouraging intruders, but it happens regularly. Fighting hummingbirds use their needle-like bills and sharp talons as weapons, and can seriously injure, even kill, other hummingbirds that do not yield to their dominance.
Even the angriest hummingbird usually starts with the least aggressive option to defend its territory, and hummingbird sounds, threat postures, dives and chases are the most common interactions between competing hummers.
Curbing Hummingbird Aggression
While it can be fascinating to see hummingbirds argue, it can also be disheartening for backyard birders to create a generous hummingbird garden or feeding area only to have it taken over by a single bully bird. If one overly aggressive hummer is making trouble for your other hummingbird visitors, there are ways to minimize their territorial behavior.
- Feeder Spacing: Moving hummingbird feeders further apart may reduce the aggression different birds show in defending the area, and it can give less aggressive hummingbirds more opportunities to sip from feeders before getting chased away.
- Number of Feeders: Adding more hummingbird feeders can reduce aggression in the feeding area, as one dominant bird will not be able to defend multiple feeders as effectively. Similarly, adding hummingbird flowers to the landscaping provides even more food sources for more birds to enjoy.
- Feeder Placement: Creating multiple hummingbird feeding areas with feeders in different locations can give more birds the opportunity to use them. Ideally, if there are aggressive hummingbirds nearby, different feeding stations should be out of sight of one another – placing one feeder around a corner from another can keep one aggressive bird from dominating both locations.
- Perch Positions: An aggressive hummingbird will often stake out his territory from a favorite perch. Watching the angry bird carefully can help you locate that perch, and pruning the branch or otherwise removing the perch will force the bird into a less dominant vantage point.
- Removing Causes of Aggression: If a hummingbird seems to be going crazy to defend its area, it can be helpful to discover why the bird is so upset. Many times a different type of intruder, such as a hummingbird predator, another songbird or a feral cat may be the cause, and eliminating that stress can help the hummingbird calm down.
Hummingbird aggression can be a problem if you want to feed many hummingbirds at once, but once you learn why these birds can be aggressive, you can appreciate the great lengths they go to in order to defend their territory, and you can help mitigate their aggression without losing out on the joy of hummingbird watching.
Photo – Rufous Hummingbird © Joan Gellatly