The family Trochilidae comprises around 328 species of hummingbird – and not a single one of them involves the males helping out during breeding season. Of course, they play their part, but once a pair-bond is made and the deed is done, daddy zips off into the ether whilst the female gets to work on the all-encompassing child rearing process, from creating the nest to raising the kids.
The males don’t even have any part in choosing where the nest is built! He’s just there to pass on the DNA and complete the union that ensures more tiny hummingbirds will follow in his wingbeats.
Take the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Although she is named after the iridescent red throats of the males, what her plumage lacks is made up for in spades with just about everything else she does – she is a member of one of the 10 or so species who are also migratory. After an arduous journey of almost 500 miles from the Yucatan peninsula to Florida and then up through the Lower 48, she will soon build a tiny cup-like nest using spider webs, moss, and other soft and springy materials.
The nest is usually located in a tree or shrub and needs to be well-hidden to protect it from predators. All female hummingbirds lay on average two tiny eggs, the size of a jellybean. She will then incubate those eggs for approximately two weeks, during which time she rarely leaves the nest. When the eggs hatch, the chicks are blind and featherless and are entirely dependent on their mother for food and warmth.
There is a species that can be given some credit for putting a bit more effort in – the male Anna’s hummingbird is one of the very few who sing during courtship, albeit a 10-second long thin and squeaky “song”, interspersed with buzzes and chirps. But it’s enough to get her interested before he zips off to just about anywhere else as long as it’s nothing to do with family.
Females are always larger than males as they need to feed more frequently for all this energy-sapping procreation and everything that entails – especially given that the males have long since upped and gone; other bird species share duties or at least the male will hunt and bring food to her while she keeps the eggs warm. Not so for hummingbirds.
This means she has to stock up as much as possible, not only replacing all those tapped energy reserves if she’s just flown over an ocean, but also to have enough for her and the chicks. To feed her chicks, the mother will collect nectar from flowers using her long, narrow bill, and also catch insects such as gnats and mosquitoes to provide a protein-rich diet for her growing offspring. The chicks will stay warm in the nest for around three weeks, during which time the mother needs to keep a constant vigil.
Hummingbirds are known for their aggressive and territorial nature, which can make it difficult for them to find suitable nesting sites and defend them from other birds. Despite these challenges, hummingbird mothers are incredibly devoted to their offspring and will go to great lengths to ensure their survival. Not only does the nest have to be very well-built to withstand even the slightest storm, it needs to be well-hidden and near carefully selected food sources; it is therefore of the utmost importance that these assets are fiercely defended from other hummers and any other type of predators including other larger birds and frogs and snakes, even fish, along with the customary four-legged mammals skulking about in the undergrowth.
A recent study has shown that the females of one species, the white-necked Jacobin that lives in Central and northern South America, appear to be evolving to mimic the white and blue plumage of the males instead of their normal washed-out greens and gray-whites. The conclusion for this remarkable transition is that, without taking on any other kind of male behavior, the illusion of being a male is a huge bonus to assist in defending territory; they are donning battle armor, if you will. More species are being looked at, and this pattern does appear to be emerging across other species as well.
Often when we talk about birds, the focus is usually on the males with their showy plumage and elaborate songs and dances. But in Hummingbird World, while the males just zoom about looking pretty, hummingbird mothers are a testament to the power of maternal instinct, demonstrating incredible care and dedication to the family unit by making sure the chicks have all they need for their amazing lives ahead.