Monday, February 16, 2009

Anna's Hummingbirds: Red in beak & claw

We have had Anna’s hummingbirds in our yard since last Thanksgiving, when one made a memorable appearance in our front window. I was hugely surprised to see a hummer in late November. I went outside and checked the garden: we still had fuschia, figwort, penstemon and snapdragon all blooming, so in retrospect, it was not a huge surprise that hummingbirds would come to the table we had laid for them.

A few weeks later, in early December, we decided to put up perch-type window feeders to allow us some up close views of them. From my reading, it turns out that Anna’s each have unique and individual patterns of feathers, especially in the neck part called the gorget. From our close up views, photos and drawings, we determined that we had one female dominating in our yard.

She has a big gorget for a female, and some distinctive white feathers over her shoulder (scapular). We named her Big G, both for the gorget and also her supersize, dominant personality. There is another female with a miniscule gorget, a slightly shorter bill and a strong post-ocular spot: probably a first year female. We call her Little G. Finally there is at least one male who visits occasionally: he lives across the street at our neighbor’s feeders, and only every once in a while intrudes on Big G.

So this has been the pattern in winter. Big G rules the roost, chasing off all other birds. Little G sneaks in for occasional sips ( what David Hutchinson mentioned in his talk on Anna’s hummingbirds: “the sneaky acquisition of resources”). And I have watched on several occasions as Big G chases off the male from across the street.

So now we are in mid-February. Today was President’s day, a beautiful 50+ sunny day where spring makes some tentative steps forward. My friend Cathy and I came home from a happy day of watching hawks and were standing in the front yard around 4:30 pm, near the feeders. This is the time when we tend to see more of the hummers at the feeders as they fill their tanks to get through another cold winter night.

Suddenly, we heard a distinctive TZZZT song repeating over and over again: this is what David had described as the spring territorial song of male Anna’s hummers. Suddenly there were two males in the yard, circling around and around, chasing and TZZZTing each other, buzzing their wings with great abandon, puffing up their gorget feathers at each other and in general, displaying zero tolerance towards the other.

This went on for a good ten minutes, as Cathy and I tried to sort out who’s on first, what’s happening, where are they perching, etc. After awhile, we noticed Big G in the yard, perched in her usual spot on the south side of the lilac shrub ( not coincidentally 8 feet from the feeder). Contrary to her usual behavior, she sat very still and quiet. There were none of the usual chittering chip calls she makes to express her annoyance at any intruder.

Then we noticed that the census of males had dropped down to one: he perched in the maple tree maybe 8 feet from her and made nonstop TZZZT sounds, which she seemed to ignore. Finally he made a lunge straight at her: there was lots of chittering buzzing calls, swirling closed circling flights around each other. I had the sense they were beating each other with their wings, if not beaks and claws. One bird drove the other bird to the ground, under the low deck beyond our vision, but we continued to hear lots of vocalizing and beating of wings against the wood of the deck. Finally one bird shot off; we didn’t see what happened to the other bird. About 10 minutes later I saw Big G at the feeder, apparently none the worse for wear. I don’t know about the male. (When I told Glen about it later, we looked at each other with and speculated about how maybe he should go under the deck with a flashlight. We decided not to; I don't wanna know).
So Cathy and I stood there with our mouths agape, deeply stunned by the ferocity of the fight. I think we humans tend to think of hummers as delicate and sweet birds. Au contraire.

I include in this blog a picture I found on the internet; according to Sheri Williamson, the hummer expert who interpreted this photo, this was most likely a territorial fight, and the young bird lying dodo on the ground was the loser. The person who took the photo said that both birds got up and got away.




  1. Wonderful story and filled with so many details. I should look closer at our Annna's. I see the behavior, but I have yet to pick them apart besides male/female.

    Welcome to the Nature Blog Network! I'm new there too :)

  2. We too have had 2 or 3 Anna's at our hummingbird feeder all winter long. They are pretty aggressive with each other like all hummingbirds. A most unusual thing this past weekend - I was working in the backyard much of the afternoon and one of the hummers gave an extremely loud chirp. I thought it was some other type of bird, but only saw the hummer. It was like a mouse roaring. I don't know how such a small bird could make such a loud vocalization. Any explanations?