Ask the Experts: Hummingbird Behavior Explained

Birding experts answer some of the most commonly asked questions about fascinating hummingbird behavior that you might see in your backyard.

hummingbird behaviorCourtesy Eric Tome
Hummingbirds love tube shaped flowers like trumpet vine

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 some questions we get asked the most often about hummingbird behavior.

How do I attract more hummingbirds to my yard?

Irenesidoti1Courtesy Irene Sidoti
Make sure your hummingbird feeder is filled with fresh sugar water

Think red! Colorful feeders visible from a distance and classic, tube-shaped 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 with sugar water and clean at all times.

Check out the top 10 red hummingbird flowers.

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.

Do fighting hummingbirds ever hurt each other?

How do I know if a female hummingbird is nesting nearby?

hummingbird motherCourtesy Anna He
Female Anna’s hummingbird returns to her nest

“A female Anna’s hummingbird doesn’t seem to leave my yard. Is it possible she’s nesting nearby?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Marilyn Conner.

If your yard is well supplied with flowers or feeders, a hummingbird might stay close whether or not she has a nest. Her behavior will offer clues as to whether she is actively nesting or raising young. She’ll be on the nest and out of sight most of the time if she’s incubating eggs, zipping out only occasionally to eat. If she’s building a nest or feeding young nestlings, you’ll see her make frequent trips back and forth. But if she perches in the open most of the time, she’s probably just enjoying your yard and not nesting.

Here’s why hummingbirds are the ultimate bird supermoms.

Hummingbird courtship behavior to attract mates

“A male ruby-throated hummingbird likes to zoom back and forth quickly while making a high-pitched chirping noise in my yard. What’s he doing?” asks reader Kelly Kothenbeutel.

Male ruby-throats put on impressive rituals called shuttle displays as part of their hummingbird courtship behavior. A male quickly zooms from side to side in a shallow arc with his throat feathers flared out, making a loud whirring noise with his wings.

This display is usually directed at a female hummingbird, but she may be hard to spot if she’s hidden in the foliage of a tree or shrub and is just watching without reacting.

Do hummingbirds mate for life?

Male and female hummingbird behavior

“I see a lot of female hummingbirds at our feeders but no males. Why could that be?” asks reader James Hoover.

A few factors could come into play. Some studies have found slightly more females than males in the population of adult ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Males have somewhat different behavior, too. They often perch higher so they can watch for rivals and visit feeders only briefly, while females spend a longer time at feeders while they’re facing the demands of raising young without the help of the males. And in late summer, adult males are far outnumbered by all the newly independent young hummers, which look almost the same as adult females. On the other hand, it may be just an odd coincidence at your feeders.

When do hummingbirds migrate?

Bnbhc18 Peter Darcy 1Courtesy Peter Darcy
Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate south for the winter

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.

Do hummingbirds prefer open or more secluded habitat?

Different kinds of hummingbirds have different preferences. But in general, North American hummingbirds prefer open habitats. 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.

Did you know: In the American tropics, some types of hummingbirds live in the deep shadows and almost never come out into the sunlight.

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. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.
Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten has more than 15 years of experience writing and editing birding and gardening content. As content director of Birds & Blooms, she leads the team of editors and freelance writers sharing tried-and-true advice for nature enthusiasts who love to garden and feed birds in their backyards. Since joining Birds & Blooms 17 years ago, Kirsten has held roles in digital and print, editing direct-to-consumer books, running as many as five magazines at a time, and managing special interest publications. Kirsten has traveled to see amazing North American birds and attended various festivals, including the Sedona Hummingbird Festival, the Rio Grande Bird Festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival, and the Cape May Spring Festival. She has also witnessed the epic sandhill crane migration while on a photography workshop trip to Colorado. Kirsten has participated in several GardenComm and Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conferences and is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. When she's not researching, writing, and editing all things birding and gardening, Kirsten is enjoying the outdoors with her nature-loving family. She and her husband are slowly chipping away at making their small acreage the backyard of their dreams.