A war over resource ownership has broken out right in front of our window. Flashes of metallic red, then a loud buzzing sound as one of the combatants zips by with his incensed adversary hot on his tail feathers. “Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk,” one of the hummingbirds spits at the other in staccato gunfire rhythm. A brief reply of “bsee” by the other and they rise into the air, forever diving at each other, waving their needle beaks like drunks in a knife fight.
Our feeder swings innocently in the breeze below them, its junk food nectar apparently trumping the wholesome and utterly organic plethora of wildflowers everywhere. Fields of arnica, bluebells, lupines and prickly roses, not to mention the flowering saskatoon bushes sprinkled throughout our clearing, seem to mean nothing to these hummingbirds. It is table sugar dissolved in water, encased in ugly sun-bleached plastic, that they are fighting over.
At the peril of getting impaled on one of the needle beaks in a fly-by slashing, Sam and I venture outside. The whirring and buzzing shapes zoom past us, nothing but two rust-coloured smudges, before they settle into a more concentrated form of battle around the feeder. Dodging each other around the plastic column, they keep coming to standstills in the air, wings and tail feathers spread like avian exhibitionists, uttering hissing threats. If there is an animal species with a Napoleon complex, it must be hummingbirds.
I wonder where our resident male’s wife is during all this. She gives a much more reasonable impression than her flamboyant partner, barely wasting a glance at his air acrobatics when she comes to the feeder. Eager to show off and impress, he’ll shoot straight up into the air as if launched from a slingshot and plummet back towards earth next to the feeder when his beloved drinks. It makes me motion sick just to watch him perform these dizzying loops. Maybe her, too. Now at least he has the complete attention of a hummingbird, even if it’s another male.
Every now and then one gains split second access to the feeder, setting off a renewed round of chase through the soapberries before the two of them hover around the feeder again. I’m starting to be a bit mystified by their posturing.
“What’s the point of it all?” I ask Sam, hoping for masculine insight.
“Our guy wants to keep the feeder to himself and his wife,” Sam explains.
“Well, yeah – but really, what can a hummingbird do? Poke the other one with his beak? It’s not like they can strike at each other with their feet and break a wing or back,” I wonder.
Sam considers this conundrum. Bluff charges and posturing are a good way to settle disputes, but what happens when neither party backs off and neither one is capable of delivering on their threats?
“I don’t know,” Sam admits, eyeing the birds for the answer they surely must know. I’m beginning to feel not only large and klutzy but also rather dumb. Outdone by wildlife yet again.
“Maybe they just keep this up until one drops dead from exhaustion,” I suggest. There have been brief time-outs by now when one of the combatants sneaks a bit of a breather in the dense foliage of a willow bush. It must be the interloper who is starting to slow down: the other hummingbird perches on a twig above the feeder that our resident male is fond of sitting on.
Eventually, we’re starting to tire of it too. They’ve been at it for two hours. Glad that we’re not ornithologists who’d have to stay and watch for the deciding move that settles the dispute (a strike with the beak, the opponent pinned to a tree or launched into outer space), we take the route of hummingbird wives and simply leave the guys to it.
By late afternoon, one of the males has finally disappeared. I gather that our guy has won, judging by his fondness of certain perches. Trying to calculate how many calories he must have burned in the battle of the birds, I estimate that I will be refilling the feeder in a couple of days.
It would be cruel to let the source of contention run dry.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.