Studying Hummingbird Behavior

Last week I wrote about the hummingbirds I’d seen over my holiday break in Arizona, and I talked briefly about their behavior at the feeders – how a single hummingbird would claim a feeder as its own and guard it, chasing away any others that approached. When I unearthed my field notebooks from college, one of the things I found was pages of data on this very subject. On a trip to Costa Rica for our tropical biology class, my friend Meredith and I did a little study of how different hummingbird species interacted at the feeders at our hotel in the cloud forest.


Let me explain what’s going on in these columns of cryptic notes. The strings of capital letters were our codes for the different hummingbird species – not proper banding codes, just our own abbreviations. For example, “M” is a Magnificent Hummingbird, “FMG” is a female White-throated Mountain-gem, and “VE” is a Green Violet-ear. (Only in some species could we easily tell the sexes apart.) “Back” is just my note that I was watching the back feeder, not the front one. When there was already one hummingbird at the feeder and another one approached, we would record what sort of interaction they had. Was there no reaction, did the new one displace the one that was already there, did the one that was already there chase the new one away? As you can see, there was a lot of action. When we got home we entered all of this into spreadsheets, ran some statistics, and eventually presented the results as a poster at an ornithological conference. (Don’t ask me what the results were, exactly, because this was four years ago and I don’t really remember.)

An ancient photo from said trip to Costa Rica in January 2009. Yeah, field biology, it’s a tough career.

By the time this post is published on Wednesday I’ll be on a field trip with my graduate program to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Findland, Minnesota. Look for a post Friday or Saturday on my expedition to the northern (!) shore of Lake Superior!

9 replies on “Studying Hummingbird Behavior”

I watched that very same feeder in 1984–I’ll betcha! I didn’t do a study though. I have done a quick one (one afternoon) at my feeders at home (Ohio) after watching a blue jay and mourning dove battle to a draw over a feeder and then wondering how the jay got his aggressive reputation.. The most aggressive bird by far that day was the white-breasted nuthatch.

I got some neat pics of a female ruby-throated hummingbird at the feeder attempting to fend off the honey bees who had usurped her lunch. it was fascinating and amusing but only lasted one day, then the bees disappeared until late in the fall when i guess the flowers were few and far between but after the hummingbirds had already moved south.

So, you did that trip during your degree? For classes? That’s so good, because you really learn things by experience. I’m studing biology in the university of porto, and there are no such classes. It always indoors, and I think that by that we don’t learn for real.

Kisses and good trip

Yes, I took a semester-long class on tropical biology as an undergrad, and our “lab” was a week-long trip to Costa Rica. During the trip, every student had to complete some sort of small research project. It was a great experience.

Just wanted to let you know that we still have a hummingbird hanging around a feeder here in east Texas. We have had some below freezing nights, sleet and snow the last couple of days (nothing like you have) so we are hoping she moves on to the valley.

I have a humming bird’s nest on my patio on my light string. I guess that they are nesting, because one bird is sitting on the nest more or less all day long. Today I noticed that the bird is moving the head from side to side constantly. What does that mean?

Thanks for responding so quick. I don’t dare sit on my patio because whenever I go outside, mama bird takes off. – She seems to be moving around a lot more today than any other day. I can see the nest from my workroom.

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