Dear Bird Folks,
I’m amazed at the flying ability of hummingbirds. Their flight speed and maneuvering skills must give them a huge advantage at not only gathering food but also at avoiding any potential enemies. I’m wondering, do predators even bother trying to eat them?
-BB, Marstons Mills, MA
You should have noticed, BB,
While you were noticing the hummingbird’s flying ability you should have also noticed its size, which is very, very small. In the world of nature the list of potential enemies typically increases as body size decreases. For example: mice are on just about every predator’s menu, while a much larger mammal, like say, a groundhog, only has to worry about really big creatures like bears, bobcats, coyotes and those weirdoes in Punxsutawney. In the bird world, crows have far fewer enemies than do the smaller Mourning Doves, which is much to the chagrin of the lady from Chatham who yelled at me today because crows wake her up each morning. (She is convinced that I’m in charge of the crows’ behavior and whom they annoy. Oh, if only that were true.) Small creatures, with little or no defenses, have to evolve a way to ensure their survival. In the case of mice and doves, their ability to quickly breed new replacements is what works best for them. The tiny hummingbirds aren’t necessarily prolific breeders but they do have those amazing flying skills you referred to earlier. And it’s a good thing they have those skills because their enemy list is long, and at times hard to believe.
Near the top of a hummingbird’s hard-to-believe predator list is, of all things, an insect. It’s difficult to imagine that an insect can stalk, capture and eat a live, healthy, adult bird, but it’s true. I’m not talking about some kind of sci-fi super bug from the Amazon Basin either. This insect is so common that everyone reading this column has probably had one living in their yard or maybe even inside their house. Any guesses as to what this common, but ferocious insect is? (No, it’s not a greenhead fly, but that’s an excellent guess.) This hummingbird-eating insect is the praying mantis.
Just like hummingbirds, mantises are attracted to both flowers and hummingbird feeders. However, the mantises aren’t looking for nectar. They hang out near flowers or feeders waiting for other insects to pass by. Using their branch-like camouflage and their lightning-quick strikes, mantises can easily snag any passing insect; if a careless hummingbird happens to come along, it will snag and eat that, too.
Spiders are another surprise problem for hummingbirds. The trouble is hummingbirds depend upon spiders for their housing. Hummingbirds use snippets of spider web silk to hold their nests together. If while they are stealing the snippets, the birds see tiny insects stuck on the web, they help themselves to those, too. However, like most burglars, hummingbirds occasionally get into trouble. Perhaps it’s inexperience, or a sudden gust of wind or too much partying the night before, but once in a while a hummingbird finds itself tangled in the web. Once entangled the tiny bird can’t get away, at which point the resident spider moves in and then…well, you know.
Next on the list of surprising animals that will feed on hummingbirds are fish. Yup, fish. A large percentage of a hummingbird’s diet is minute flying insects. Hummers will sometimes hover just above the water’s surface to catch bugs, with little knowledge of what lies below. At least one observer has reported seeing a bass leap out of the water to help itself to a hummer for lunch. Frogs, toads and even dragonflies have also been known to chow down the occasional careless hummingbird. Then there are the avian predators that include such surprises as flycatchers and roadrunners. Roadrunners! No wonder the hummers always root for the coyote.
You were right, BB, when you suggested that the hummingbirds’ superior flying skills can usually get them out of trouble. Most of the above accounts are fairly rare events and the predators we’ve discussed have little impact on the hummingbird population. However, there is one creature that really is a problem for hummingbirds. That’s the dreaded out-of-the house house cat. Uncontrolled domestic cats are an enormous problem for all small birds and hummingbirds are no different. Even the hummer’s flying abilities haven’t evolved enough to deal with this non-native menace. (Whenever I take issue with outdoor cats I’m pretty much guaranteed to get at least one note from some upset cat lover. That’s fine, but I can tell you right now, not even having a beer at the White House would be enough to change my mind. An ice cream maybe, but not a beer.)
While we are on the subject of hummingbirds, many people are asking if it’s too late (mid-August) to put out a feeder for them. Are you kidding? For the next six weeks thousands of hummingbirds will be pouring down from the North on their way to the tropics. These hungry birds will be looking for places to stop and eat. Yes, get your feeders out. I’d write more on this topic but I have to send a flock of crows over to annoy that lady from Chatham. Man, I love having this power.