High Country Birding: Mother hummingbirds shoulder burden of raising young
Like our mountain chickadees and cliff swallows, most birds are monogamous. Happily mated for life, these birds work as a team. They build their nests jointly, hang out together and share parental responsibilities, such as 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, many 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 backward 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 and trying to monopolize the best feeders or flowers in town. Males will stake out the biggest territory they think they can defend and then spend more time fighting with other birds than feeding. While the females shun makeup, slave over nest building and deal with demanding kids, the males get gussied up (broad-tailed in bright red, calliope in magenta and Rufous in copper), pick fights and hog the bar stools.
While 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 they graciously pick up the tab. But sorry, ladies, there’s 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 silver-tongued 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 chickadee feeding the kids and looking wistfully over at the guys hanging out at the hummingbird feeder, show a little sympathy.
Bob Bowers is a naturalist and freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, lives in the mountain foothills near Tucson and spends much of his summer in Keystone. He writes a birding and travel blog, http://www.birdingthebrookeandbeyond.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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