Ask the Experts: Hummingbird Behavior Explained

Experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman answer the five most commonly asked questions about hummingbird behavior and attracting hummingbirds.

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When a hummingbird visits your backyard nectar feeder or flower garden, it’s downright enchanting. They seem to hover magically in the air and zip around in the blink of an eye. But these can sometimes be tricky birds to attract, and we receive a lot of questions from readers about these tiny fliers. So we’ve answered the five questions we get asked the most often about hummingbirds.

How do I attract more hummingbirds to my yard?

Think red! Colorful feeders visible from a distance and classic, tubular flowers are two ways to increase your chances of attracting these birds. It’s especially worthwhile adding nectar flowers to your garden and keeping feeders filled and clean at all times. Check out the top 10 red flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Why do hummingbirds chase others away from the feeder?

These birds have an instinct to defend their food sources because a patch of flowers produces only a little nectar each day. Even at a feeder, hummingbirds practice the same defensive behavior. A good strategy to prevent one from dominating the food source is to put up several feeders, located some distance apart from each other. If a feeder is out of sight from the others (around a corner, for example), it makes it harder for one bird to control them all. In a situation like that, even the more aggressive hummingbird may give up and just share with others. Hummingbirds will love to visit these feeders.

When do hummingbirds migrate?

It depends on where you are. In the South and along the Pacific Coast, you may have hummingbirds all winter. Farther north, hummingbirds will probably be gone by October. Later in fall, however, there may be the odd hummingbird from the West showing up in the East. If you keep your feeders up until November, you might attract some surprising visitors. Don’t worry that your feeders might keep the locals from migrating. Their migration instinct is very strong. They will leave when they’re ready, and neither flowers nor feeders can tempt them to stay. Psst—here’s where hummingbirds go in winter.

How long do hummingbirds live?

These tiny creatures don’t live long. Based on banding studies. 7 or 8 years is a ripe old age for most hummingbirds in the wild. Ruby-throated hummingbirds have lived 9 years, and one banded female broad-tailed in Colorado made it to 12. A zoo that’s properly set up for these birds may stretch longevity. Two black-chinned hummingbirds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum lived to 13 or 14 years old.

Do hummingbirds prefer open or more secluded habitat?

Different kinds of hummingbirds have different preferences. But in general, North American hummingbirds like open habitats. In the American tropics—home to more than 300 hummingbird species—some types live in the deep shadows and almost never come out into the sunlight. If you want to create habitat for hummingbirds, design an area with some trees and shrubs, a good supply of nectar flowers and plenty of open space.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.