Bird Watcher's General Store

Hummingbirds Possess Unique Flying Skills

Dear Bird Folks,

Hopefully, you can see the bird in the attached video, but it might be difficult because the bird is way across the yard, plus I filmed it with my iPhone. But I can tell you that itís a hummingbird and it is doing a very interesting flight maneuver. It flies up about thirty feet in the air, then flies down towards the bushes and then swoops back up again. It did this several times in a row, reminding me of a skateboarder in a half-pipe. Any idea what the bird was doing?

Ė Matt, Brewster, MA

I canít see it, Matt,

I did some of my best squinting but I couldnít see a hummingbird in your video clip. Sorry. But donít be mad at your iPhone. The smart phone is one of the best thing humans have ever invented. It ranks right up there with refrigeration, penicillin and the air guitar. But thereís a limit to what even an iPhone can do. Filming a tiny bird at such a distance is pushing the limits for any camera, especially one in a telephone. And while I like your visual about the hummingbird flying like a ďskateboarder in a half-pipe,Ē Iím not sure everyone knows what you are talking about. I hate to generalize, but I doubt many of my readers are hardcore skateboarders. Letís just say the hummerís flight display was ďU-shaped,Ē looking like Mitch Millerís hands when he was conducting his choir on the Sing Along With Mitch TV show. I think thatís more of an image my readers will understand.

There are a lot of things hummingbirds canít do. They canít walk, they canít run, and because of their small size, they can only drive Mini Coopers. But when it comes to flying, hummingbirds donít take a backseat to any creature. Hummingbirds can hover like a helicopter, fly backwards under their own power (not blown by the wind) and can actually fly upside down, a behavior that is traditionally only performed by the drunkest pilots. They also have another special flying skill. Most birds take to the air at an angle, gaining height gradually, but hummingbirds can fly straight up, rocket-style. This was the skill you witnessed, Matt, even though your telephone-movie canít prove it.

During their long spring migration, male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are fairly peaceful birds. They have no interest in squabbling because they have something else on their mind. But the minute the males arrive on their breeding grounds, everything changes. The birds become super-aggressive. Like tiny honey badgers, these males will attack anything that movesÖwell, anything that looks like another hummingbird.

If he was successful, a male hummingbird typically returns to the exact territory from the previous year. By ďsuccessful,Ē I mean if he was able to attract a female, or two, or three. But, if he attracted no females, he will not return. Instead, he will attempt to establish a new territory, in a new location. (Some other loser hummingbird can have his old territory.) What makes a good territory? Female hummers have relatively few demands. They donít need a room with a view, a large kitchen or lots of closet space. They just need a reliable supply of nectar and lots, and lots of tiny bugs. Males try to dazzle the female with all kinds of aerial displays and showy plumages, but the only things that matter to her are nectar and bugs. (Oh, man. If it were only that easy for the rest of us.)

Good territories are hard to find, so from sun up to sun down, the male hummingbird neurotically scans his domain for any intruders. He is so driven to keep other hummers away that he rarely eats and forgets to preen his feathers. As a result, his plumage becomes all ratty and disheveled and he starts to lose weight, which, with a hummingbird, is saying something. Yet, he continues to stand guard. If another male comes too close, the owner will fire the proverbial shot across the bow, which, in this case, are a few warning chirps. If the interloper is smart, he will amscray and thereíll be peace in the valley. But if the trespasser ignores the warning, the property owner will spring into action. He will dive down, pulling out of the dive inches from the intruderís head. He will then shoot back up and dive down again. This is the hummerís classic U-shaped (aka, half-pipe) display. If the display doesnít work the next step is physical contact, which includes body slams (really) and beak-to-beak combat. Sometimes things get so bad that people have to run out and turn the garden hose on the birds to break things up. Wait! I might be thinking of dogs. Forget that last one.

The male hummingbird is so proud of his U-shaped display that he will also use it to impress the ladies. If a female enters his territory, he sometimes will chase her out. (Heís so worked up that he occasionally forgets whom is supposed to like.) But if he doesnít chase her away, he will show off his U-shaped display in front of her. If she likes what she sees (and how can she not?), she will land on a branch and give him a look as if to say, ďWhat else you got?Ē At this point the two birds interact in a complicated flight ritual. Now it becomes hard to tell if the birds are fighting or if they are actually attracted to each other, just like with some human couples.

Even though your video wasnít definitive, Matt, you were lucky to have seen the male hummerís U-shaped display. Good for you. I personally have never seen it myself. However, I do remember seeing Mitch Miller on TV, but Iím not sure if thatís the same thing.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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