I had a two-and-a-half-inch surgical screw removed from my foot last week. The doctor allowed as how he doesn’t trust his patients not to walk too much too soon, so he put me in a ginormous boot. Smart man. Since I can’t take my normal birding walks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time sitting in my back yard with my binoculars. It’s kind of a “Rear Window” scenario … if I had backyard neighbors who were murderously inclined.
There was some avian mayhem for sure. I watched an American Robin kill two cicadas in a protracted dance of biting and dropping and biting and dropping that took her the entire length of the yard. Her nearly-grown fledgling, fully as big as its parent, chased after her the whole way, begging for its dinner. I imagined my thirteen-year-old chasing after me to spoon feed him, although I suppose a better analogy would be the cooking lessons we’re giving him so that once he’s on his own he doesn’t have to live on fast food and Froot Loops.
And then there were the hummingbirds. The male hasn’t been around since mid-summer—they don’t participate in raising the young—but we’ve had a regular female visitor at the feeder, and at the rate she was draining it, she was clearly eating enough for her and her two babies. It’s well past time when the babies should have fledged, and this week, there have been two females at the feeder. And as it turns out, hummingbirds are not always all that nice to each other.
Their interaction goes like this: the first bird will arrive and hover just out of sight around the corner from the feeder. Then the second flies in, hovers, and finally cautiously approaches. Just as it’s about to eat, the other one zooms between it and the feeder and chases it away. I’ve seen them do this five or six times in a half an hour.
I did some reading. One thing I learned is that I’ve been feeding them all wrong. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, hummingbirds have evolved to be more aggressive when food is scarce and this instinct is “so deeply ingrained that they just can’t figure out that feeders are different.” Add in the drought, which had led to far fewer flowers than normal, and the fact that migration is just around the corner, and the aggression makes sense. They are clearly both getting food somewhere—they wouldn’t survive this many days without it—but I’ll be adding another feeder to see if giving them separate places to eat solves the problem.
It hasn’t been all drama. I added a new bird to my yard list for the year—the Eastern Wood-Pewee, whose distinctive pee-wee call I hear every day now—and I’ve rediscovered a pair of Baltimore Orioles that I haven’t seen since May but that were likely there all along.
My boot comes off in two days. It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would.
Ed note: For more information see www.nytimes.com/2019/02/05/science/hummingbirds-science-take.html.