Backyard birders feel privileged when any birds take up residence in their yards, but there's an extra special feeling when that feathered resident is a hummingbird. But how often can we expect these tiny families to appear – just how many times do hummingbirds nest in a year?
Before the Nest
Before hummingbirds can build a nest and get to the business of raising tiny little hummingbird chicks, they have to be in the right location and find just the right mate – a process that may take several weeks. In tropical areas as well as along the Pacific coast of the United States and into Mexico, hummingbirds may be year-round residents, but many hummingbirds migrate to northern areas for the breeding season. In the southern part of their breeding range, such as in Florida or south Texas, hummingbirds may begin arriving as early as late February or early March, but these birds won't reach the northern parts of their summer range until late April or May.
Once they have arrived, hummingbirds need to establish a suitable territory, defending their favorite feeding and roosting sites from other birds. At the same time, they will work to attract the strongest, healthiest mate to increase their chances of successfully passing along their genes to the next generation. They may do this by displaying their brilliant plumage or engaging in daredevil dives and other aerial displays that show off their strength and prowess.
Once a pair of hummingbirds expresses interest in one another, mating is a quick process that only takes a few seconds. Different birds may mate with different partners, and males in particular often seek out as many willing females as they can. After mating, however, male hummingbirds are absentee dads and have no further role in raising a family, and instead the female takes over all parenting duties.
Once a female hummingbird is ready to mate, she begins to build a nest. Choosing the nest location can take several days, and she may try out a variety of locations to pick the very best spot to build. The nest location must be sheltered from the cruelest hot sun and bitter winds, as well as protected from rain and predators. A sheltered fork of a tree branch or deep within a dense, thicket-like shrub is an ideal location, but hummingbirds have been known to build their nests in more precarious positions. Depending on the range and the availability of food or other suitable nesting sites, hummingbirds may position their nests on top of cacti, perched on a porch lamp or even balanced on a clothesline. Nests are generally positioned 3-60 feet above the ground.
Once she has found the right place to put her nest, the soon-to-be mother hummingbird must build the nest structure. She will spend several hours a day at the task, and it will take 5-7 days for the nest to be complete. A variety of materials are used in the construction, including moss, plant fluff, the fuzz from leaves, small bits of cotton, lichens, feathers and similar soft materials, all bound together with the sticky, flexible silk from spider webs. That spider silk gives the nest both strength and flexibility so it can stretch as the young chicks will grow.
When she is ready, the female will lay two tiny oval-shaped eggs, smaller than a jelly bean, and incubation will begin.
Raising a Family
The incubation period for a hummingbird nest varies from 11-22 days depending on the species and climate, but brooding periods of 14-18 days are most common for hummingbirds that breed in North America. The female alone incubates the eggs, and once they hatch, she cares for the two demanding chicks. Baby hummingbirds will stay in the nest for 2-3 weeks as they grow and mature, and once they leave the nest, they may still require feeding and care from their mother as they learn their way in the world. In a very short time, however, these young hummers will learn where the best food sources are and they will be on their own.
So, How Many Nests?
From the time of migration to when the chicks leave the nest can be just a few weeks or may take 2-3 months, depending on the hummingbird species and how favorable nesting conditions may be. For hummingbirds in northern habitats, this generally means they only raise a single brood of young chicks each year. In southern areas or where hummingbirds are year-round residents, 2-3 nests may be raised each year without difficulty, so long as food sources are abundant to nourish the family.
In some extreme cases, hummingbirds will renest, even if they only typically raise one brood a year. If their first nesting attempt fails – such as getting destroyed by a predator or a storm – the female may seek out a new mate and make a new nest if it is early enough in the season. If disaster strikes later, however, she may simply abandon her attempts to nest that year entirely.
The more we know about how hummingbirds nest, the more we can encourage them to raise their families in our hummingbird-friendly yards, and the more hummingbird nests we will be privileged to see each year.