Male Hummingbirds: Playboys of the Bird World

While the Female Raises the Kids, it's Guys Night Out

Many of our birds, like the Curve-billed Thrasher, are monogamous.  Happily mated for life, these birds work together.  They build their nests jointly, hang out together and share parental responsibilities, like incubating, feeding and fledging their young.  They don’t flirt, let alone mess around.

Well, not so for hummingbirds.  If men could be reincarnated as birds, most would likely vote for coming back as a hummer.  Female hummingbirds shoulder the entire burden of child-rearing.  They find a nesting site, search for lint, hair and spider web and build the nest alone.  They lay their eggs unattended, have to fend for their own food, incubate the eggs and feed the hungry young.  When it comes time to teach the new hummingbirds how to leave the nest, fly backwards and forage for food, it’s the mom’s job, all by her lonesome.

And where is dad throughout these trying times?  Well, he’s hanging out with the guys over at the local nectar bar.  When female hummingbirds are working their tails off looking for nesting sites, the males are bar-hopping, finding the best feeders or flowers in town and doing their best to keep them to themselves.  Males will stake out the biggest territory they think they can defend, and then spend more time fighting with other birds than drinking.  While the females shun makeup, slave over nest-building and deal with demanding kids, the males get gussied up (Costa’s dress up in purple, Anna’s in bright red and Broad-billed in iridescent blue), pick fights and hog the bar stools.

Although the males aggressively chase off any and all male intruders, they do make an exception for hungry females.  Female hummingbirds are welcomed to male feeding territories with open wings, and the more, the merrier.  Showing their one and only generous side, males make room at the bar for every lady hummer crazy enough to wander in, and graciously pick up the tab.  But, of course, there’s a price.  Sorry, ladies, no free lunch.  And no sweet talk or long term relationships, either.  A little nectar, a lot of sex, and then time to move on, an old flame just buzzed in.  Male hummingbirds are the high school jock, Casanova and smooth-talking frat boy, all rolled into one.  For these guys, two partners are better than one and four better yet.  The only things missing are football, Schwarzenegger movies and a round of golf.

So what leads to all this debauchery and fast-living?  Maybe it’s the high metabolism, a heart rate up to 80 beats a second, or having to flap your wings 2,200 times a minute.  Maybe it’s just all that sugar water.  In any case, the next time you see a male Curve-billed Thrasher feeding the kids and looking wistfully over at the guys hanging out around the hummingbird feeder, show a little sympathy.

(Originally published in the Saddlebag Notes, July, 2011.  Text and photographs copyright Bob Bowers, all rights reserved.)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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One Response to Male Hummingbirds: Playboys of the Bird World

  1. Melanie Forde says:

    Great article! I’ve certainly seen plenty of fights at the nectar feeder, but never took note of the genders. Can’t wait until the season begins to see for myself how the rubythroated male welcomes the girls, while shooing off other males. With all the work they do, the girls can use all the carbs they can get.

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