Wild Ideas: The hum-ger games 

Female (left) and male ruby-throated hummingbirds square off over rights to the author’s nectar feeder. Photo by Pam Owen.
Female (left) and male ruby-throated hummingbirds square off over rights to the author’s nectar feeder. Photo by Pam Owen.

“These brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures glitter like jewels in the full sun, then vanish with a zip toward the next nectar source.”

– Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s allaboutbirds.org on ruby-throated hummingbirds

Anyone who feeds hummingbirds can appreciate the quote above but may also find the following scenario familiar:

You keep your eyes peeled in the spring for that first ruby-throated hummingbird, our most common hummer, to make its appearance. By April, you’ve spotted one. You’re thrilled and dutifully put out a special feeder filled with nectar consisting of the recommended one part refined sugar and four parts water that you’ve lovingly boiled and prepared.

You place the feeder close to your house, maybe on your deck, so you can get a great view of the birds as they start to arrive. For weeks, just one or two show up, maybe three or four. The males acquiesce to the females for the most part, although they may battle each other for access to the feeder. It’s lovely watching these aerial acrobats flying around the yard like tiny helicopters. You can even sit quietly on the deck with a glass of wine, since they get used to you quickly – maybe even see you as their beloved benefactor.

Spring advances. By June, the first brood of young hummers is now able to join their parents at the feeder. Aerial acrobatics ensue as six or more hummers now jockey for position there. While the young generally defer to the larger adults, the mature males are now not so keen to defer to the females.

As spring progresses, ants join the birds at the feeder, with maybe a yellow jacket or two also seeking the sweet stuff, causing unease among the birds. Refilling the feeder now involves first knocking out the ants that are invariably in it.

By midsummer, a second brood fledges, and now it’s every hummer for itself. Some males perch nearby to guard the feeder, so busy keeping competitors away that they rarely eat.

Maybe adding a second feeder will split up the troops and get some peace, so you put one out a good distance from the first. The diversion helps, but for some unfathomable reason, one of the feeders is strongly preferred – the one on your deck.

The mildly annoying wasps are now joined by one or two large hornets – bald-faced or European – who go beyond getting in the way and beeline (so to speak) for any hummer coming near the feeder. Refilling the feeder becomes a frantic dance that involves dodging the dogfights among the hummers and bombardment by the hornets while tapping out the ants that have collected in the feeder.

Meanwhile some of the hummers keep hovering a couple of feet in front of your face, expectantly waiting for the feeder to go back on the hook. You think of Audrey, the carnivorous plant from “Little Shop of Horrors,” who drove its owner to murder by incessantly yelling, “Feed me!”

You spend more and more time making nectar, less and less time on your deck because the of the hornets’ aggressive defense of their claimed treasure. By September, yellow jackets have returned, this time in gangs ready to rumble. Going on the deck gets a bit scary, so you think maybe it’s time to help the wildlife withdraw from their sugar addiction and you take the feeder down.

You can now spend time on your deck, saying to yourself, “I’m surrounded by native forest, with lots of nectar-producing plants, and none of these critters need the feeder” or “forget the little ungrateful pests, I’m going to enjoy a quiet respite here, free of all things small and smaller.”

It’s tough to get through this phase. Seeing hummingbirds up close is a treat, and you probably are boosting the wildlife population by supplementing what is already abundant nearby and has been for millions of years. So maybe you pick up another pound of sugar when you’re at the store . . . and maybe a third feeder. The hand-blown glass one is really pretty.

Sound familiar?

The hummer wars have gotten so bad at the feeder on my deck, which I can watch easily through the living-room window, that at one point I thought a young hummer had suffered brain damage from an attack by a larger male. I caught the fight out of the corner of my eye, peripherally noticing something weird at the end of it. What looked like a bat was hanging upside down from one of the four perches on the feeder. I realized it was the young hummer and went outside to see if it was alright. It hung there, looking dazed, so I tentatively put a couple of fingers under it and lifted it up, at which point it came to its senses and flew off.

So when will I end the nectar wars on the deck this year? Rufous hummingbirds have extended their range and can show up after their breeding season is over further south, often appearing in August and spending the winter if nectar is available. At that point, the only nectar is from feeders, so . . . .

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”