Hummingbird Courtship, Mating, and… Marriage?

Hummingbirds are some of the world's most beautiful and amazing birds, but their breeding relationships are some of the most tempestuous pairings of all birds. What does courtship, mating and marriage mean to a hummingbird?

Courtship and Dating – Hummingbird Style

A hummingbird's drive to raise a family and pass on its genes to the next generation is irresistible. It is critical to find a strong, healthy mate, and male hummingbirds go to great lengths to impress the girls. In order to attract a mate that will be willing to help spread the male's genes to a new generation of baby hummingbirds, boy hummingbirds will…

  • Migrate several weeks earlier than females - 
This puts males in the position to claim the best territories with the richest food sources to tempt later-arriving females. Males will perch high on branches to survey their territory, making sure they are visible to any competitors or interested females.

  • Show off their sexiness - 
To a female hummingbird, nothing is more attractive than a strong, brightly colored male. To prove their virility, males flash their colorful throat feathers, display their tails, stretch their wings and hover in front of females to show off their best colors and poses.

  • Demonstrate their strength and agility - 
Agile flight is essential for hummingbirds, and eager males will show just how agile they are in the air with a series of steep U-shaped dives or flying figure-8s in front of females. In flight, their wings and tails may buzz to attract more attention, or they will chitter as they fly.

  • Fight for their chosen mate - 
With hormones running high during spring, it's not surprising that these feisty birds might get into a fight or two. Despite their tiny size, male hummingbirds can be very aggressive, and will not only charge intruders, but may actually ram them or clash bills.

Hummingbird Mating – One Night Stands With Feathers

Once a male hummingbird has sufficiently wooed his girl, it's time for the mating action. Ironically, though it may take days or weeks for a male to court a willing female, mating only takes a few seconds. The male hummingbird will perch on top of the female's back, and the two will move their tails to the side in order to briefly touch their genitals together. Hummingbirds do not have genitalia like mammals, but this quick touch is all that is necessary for the male to pass his material to the female so her eggs can be fertilized.

A pair of birds may mate several times in a few minutes, but afterwards, their relationship ends and the male quickly leaves. The female will begin her nesting preparations, but the male can be a player – he may work to attract the attention of several other females so he can pass his genetic material on to other girls. This ensures his genes are spread as far and wide as possible, and gives the girls a wider choice of the best possible mates as well.

Marriage – Not in the Cards for Hummingbirds

Because a pair of hummingbirds does not maintain a relationship through the breeding season, there is no monogamy or devotion between mates. After mating, the males offer no help or support to the females, and it is her responsibility to…

  • Construct the nest - 
The female will choose a safe nesting site – such as in a thorny bush or on a delicate branch tip predators can't reach – and build her nest. The nest is about the size of a ping pong ball and made of plant down, lichen and spider silk, and it will stretch as the chicks grow. The mother hummingbird will also make repairs to the nest as long as she needs to use it.

  • Brood the eggs - 
Hummingbirds lay two tiny eggs, and they must be carefully incubated for 14-20 days, depending on the species and how warm the weather is. She will use her feet to rotate the eggs so they warm evenly, and while she does have to leave the nest to feed, she will hurry back and keep a sharp eye out for predators or other threats to her eggs.

  • Care for the chicks - 
Once the eggs hatch, it takes 3-4 weeks for the tiny birds to leave the nest. At first, baby hummingbirds are completely bald and helpless, and the mother has to care for them continually. She feeds them a regurgitated mixture of nectar and insects, and gradually they grow larger and stronger, stretching their wings. Once they leave the nest, the mother hummer may continue to feed them for 3-4 days, then she leaves on her fall migration and they are truly on their own!

Hummingbird relationships may be fast and furious, but when the result is baby hummingbirds and stronger hummingbird populations to enjoy, who can object?

Melissa Mayntz

About Melissa Mayntz

Melissa Mayntz is a birder and a writer, naturally writing about birds. Her work has appeared with The Spruce, Farmers' Almanac, National Wildlife Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest and other publications. She is the author of Migration: Exploring the Remarkable Journeys of Birds (Quadrille Publishing, 2020), and is transforming her suburban backyard into prime bird habitat. Be Your Own Birder.