Thursday, May 14, 2020

Hummingbird nests: Everything you want to know

Hummingbirds are the world's smallest birds. Everything about hummingbirds is tiny--even their nests!

In this article I'm going to take you through the hummingbird nesting season, concentrating on the nest itself, as much as possible. We'll look at the placement and construction of the nest. We'll talk about the hummingbird eggs and nestlings. Then we'll finish up telling you how to find hummingbird nests and attract hummingbirds to your yard for nesting.

In this article
The female hummingbird does all the work!
The hummingbird nesting season overview
Placement of hummingbird nests
The materials and construction of hummingbird nests
Hummingbird eggs and nestlings
How to find hummingbird nests
How to attract hummingbirds to nest in your yard
Hummingbird house hoax
Protecting hummingbird nests

First, though, you must understand this important aspect of hummingbird nesting...

The female hummingbird does all the work!

In the bird world there are all sorts of parenting arrangements. For hummingbirds, though, the bejeweled male guards the flowers and fights over the feeder. His one purpose in life is combating the other males and looking marvelous. If the female selects him to fertilize her eggs, then he's done. He's served his purpose. That's the last they see of each other.

Some people wonder about the elaborate courtship flights of the males. The males do an aerial dance consisting of high flights, dives, and back-and-forth arcs flying maybe 100 feet across.

This makes some people wonder if mating actually takes place in flight. The answer is either no, or rarely. Most of the time copulation takes place while the female is sitting on a branch for the very brief (3-5 seconds) touch. There are reports, however, claiming to have observed in-flight copulation (by R. S. Woods in Bent's Life History of North American Birds in 1940). I can find no recent research on this subject.

After mating, the female flies off to start nesting while the male stays by the flowers and admires himself! Well,... okay, he continues guarding the feeding flowers, chasing off other males, and trying to attract other females to mate with him.

That means that, no, hummingbirds do not mate for life. They don't even stick together for the nesting season!

The female hummingbird builds the nest. The female sits on the eggs and incubates them. She feeds all the nestlings after they hatch.

The "father" hummingbird doesn't help build the nest. The male hummingbird does not sit on the nest to incubate the eggs. He does not help feed the chicks. He is nowhere around!

Photo of female Anna's Hummingbird on a nest
Anna's Hummingbird on nest
Photo by Greg Gillson

The hummingbird nesting season overview

The nesting season for hummingbirds depends upon the species. I'll consider a few that nest in the United States.

For year-round residents, such as the Anna's Hummingbird on the West Coast, breeding season may start as early as October and continue through August. It is not unusual to have nests with eggs in December and January! However, the main time for eggs is February through mid-May.

For migrant hummingbirds, males arrive on feeding territories 2-3 weeks before the females.

In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the common migratory hummingbird is the Rufous Hummingbird. It nests primarily from April to July.

Three days. About 3 days after the female Rufous Hummingbird arrives from Mexico to the breeding grounds she has bred with the male and starts nest construction (source). That's amazing!

In the East, the only nesting hummingbird is Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They have nests with eggs primarily between the months of March and July, depending upon how far north they live.

Hummingbirds typically raise 1-2 broods of young in a nesting season. Only rarely would a hummingbird lay eggs 3 times in a year.

Placement of hummingbird nests

Hummingbirds build their nests in bushes, vines, weed stalks, or in branches of trees. Allen's, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds often place their nests in conifers. The Blue-throated Hummingbird builds its nests on flowering plants and ferns. Other hummingbirds aren't as picky.

How high do hummingbirds build their nests? Here are some nest height ranges for a few species: 1-90 feet above ground (Allen's), 2-70 feet (Calliope), 5-20 feet (Ruby-throated), 5-50 (Rufous), 4-8 feet above the ground (Black-chinned), 1-9 feet (Costa's).

It seems hummingbirds will nest at any height above the ground they can find a good location. Perhaps the availability of tall trees for nesting limits the heights of some species. They do not nest on the ground itself, though often can be quite low.

Most hummingbirds build their nests so that they are well shaded.

Female hummingbirds defend the area around their nest vigorously from other hummingbirds--male and female alike. Thus, though I can find no information on this, I suspect that hummingbirds may not build their nest in a yard with active hummingbird feeders. (Now someone, please, prove me wrong! Let me know in the comments.)

It seems that most migrant hummingbirds return to the same area to nest every year. One question that many people ask is: Do hummingbirds reuse their nests? The nests are so fragile that they often barely last through one brood. Most hummingbirds build new nests each nesting attempt. It takes about 5 days for the hummingbird to build a nest. Some hummingbirds may build a new nest on whatever is left of the old nest, however. The Blue-throated Hummingbird is noted to reuse the same nest, with repairs, for several years in a row.

Watch this very short video that shows how a hummingbird builds her nest.

The materials and construction of hummingbird nests

Female hummingbirds will use whatever fluffy plant material she can find to build her nest.

Most hummingbirds use fluffy weed seed material such as thistle down to make their cup-like nests. Some species build their nest with bits of leaves, dried plant stems, moss, down feathers, or grass. Most species decorate or camouflage the outside of their nests with lichens and sometimes bark shreds. Hummingbirds use spider silk to bind the nest together to the branch!

Most hummingbirds make the nest by adding material and then trampling the middle down. Others build the floor first and then build up the walls in layers around them. It usually takes about 5 days for the mother hummingbird to construct the nest.

Different species place the nest in different parts of plants or branches. Nests can be built on the side of a twig or hanging from twigs. Most-frequently, hummingbirds place their nest like a saddle across a single horizontal branch. Other times they build their nest in a forked limb.

Sometimes hummingbirds build their nests in very unusual places! Rufous Hummingbirds have built nests inside sheds on knots of hanging rope and wires to electric lights! Blue-throated Hummingbirds may place their nests under eaves, bridges, and inside buildings. Anna's Hummingbirds sometimes place nests on cliffs and utility wires.

How big are these nests? You mean, how small are these nests? The larger Blue-throated Hummingbird builds a nest about 2-1/2 inches wide and 3 inches tall. That's pretty big for a hummingbird nest! The Broad-billed Hummingbird isn't much smaller, but builds a much tinier nest. It has an inside diameter of only 3/4 of an inch. The Black-chinned Hummingbird builds a nest only 1-1/2 inches across and 1 inch tall. The tiny Calliope Hummingbird builds a nest about the same size. The medium-sized Ruby-throated Hummingbird builds a tiny nest only 1 inch or 1-1/4 inches across in size.

These nests look like a little white knot or bulge on a branch. It could look as if some cotton fuzz is caught on the branch. Those with lichens on the outside are camouflaged so that they blend right into the branch. Nests may be easier to see if they are in a tree branch above you. They are often hidden under leaves from above. If they are in a small bush you may not see the nest unless you are doing some pruning and then, oh no! Such may happen pruning roses in January or February in the West when Anna's Hummingbirds may be nesting.

Hummingbird nest and eggs
Image by Astrid Zamora from Pixabay

Hummingbird eggs and nestlings

Many people have tried to describe just how small hummingbird eggs are. They say they are the size of small peas. One of the best descriptions of what a hummingbird nest with eggs looks like is this. A hummingbird nest with eggs is the size of a half walnut shell with 2 white tic-tac breath mints in them!

Most hummingbirds lay 2 eggs. They occasionally lay only 1 egg, very rarely are 3 eggs laid.

Hummingbird eggs are white and oblong. They are very small. The eggs of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Rufous Hummingbirds, and the Anna's Hummingbirds all measure about 0.55 inches (1.3 cm) long and 0.3 inches (0.8 cm) wide. The eggs of Calliope Hummingbird are a bit shorter.

Mother hummingbirds incubate their eggs in the nest from 15-18 days until they hatch.

Hatchlings are born naked with eyes closed. They have pointed but shorter beaks. At first they seem so tiny, fragile and helpless that it is amazing they can even raise their heads to beg for food. They grow fast though! Remember, these little chicks hatched out of an egg the size of a small bean! They are incomprehensively tiny!

During this time the mother must feeder herself and her young. Hummingbirds must eat almost continuously during the day. But she must also find insects to regurgitate for her young all day, too. At night the hummingbirds sleep in the nest and do not eat.

Hummingbird chicks stay in the nest about 3 weeks. About 20-23 days after hatching the young birds fledge from the nest and fly away! Some hummingbird mothers feed their young outside the nest for a few days.

Photo of female Allen's Hummingbird in a bush
Female Allen's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

How to find hummingbird nests

For most people, finding hummingbird nests is usually a matter of luck. It is rare to find one. But it takes work to find more than one! Did I say work? Really, it takes patience. In our distracted world patience is work!

It's hard to find most birds nests. The nest with eggs or young is so vulnerable to predators. So most birds, including hummingbirds, go to great lengths to hide their nests. Often, if a bird knows you are watching, they won't go near the nest.

Remember that female hummingbirds guard their nesting area. They attack all other hummingbirds in their territory and drive them out--male or female. This means that hummingbird nests are not usually near each other. So you might fortuitously find one nest in your yard. But you are unlikely to find another nearby.

To actively find hummingbird nests it is easier to find them being constructed than already built. Once built, it is easier to find hummingbird nests with chicks than eggs. Let me explain why.

Female hummingbirds take up to 5 days to build a nest. During this time they are searching for fluffy plant seeds and similar material. So they are investigating both fuzzy weeds and trees. Cottonwoods, aspens, poplars, willows, and others have fluffy seeds that hummingbirds will use in their nests.

If you look for hummingbirds in wood edges that include these tree species you may find female hummingbirds gathering up bills full of fluff. Then follow her back to where she is building her nest.

The female is quite active while building her nest. She is rearranging the plant fibers, trampling the center, flipping around to the other side. Lots of movement.

Once the eggs are laid, though, she sits tight on the nest, incubating the eggs. She sneaks off to eat every once in a while. But this is a quiet time at the nest. So it is hard to find hummingbird nests then. You are actually looking for the nest. The rest of the time you are looking for the mother hummingbird and following her movements back to the nest.

Once the eggs hatch the female hummingbird spends 3 hectic weeks feeding her hungry young. Especially as the chicks are older and larger do they demand more food. Mom is flying back and forth to the nest every couple minutes!

Like I said, if you want to find a hummingbird nest it will take patience!

How to attract hummingbirds to nest in your yard

Hummingbirds want lots of dense foliage to nest in. Hummingbirds may nest in your yard in rose bushes or other dense shrubs, especially with thorns, it seems.

Because nesting hummingbirds are so territorial, they probably won't nest in a yard with lots of other hummingbirds. You have to decide. Do you want to have several feeders with lots of hummingbirds buzzing about? Or do you want a quiet retreat where one hummingbird can nest? You probably can't have both. At most, it would seem a single hummingbird feeder is allowable in a yard where a hummingbird can nest successfully.

You may be able to provide the fuzzy nesting materials for hummingbirds to build their nests. In this case, put out small bits of cotton fibers. Tear a cotton ball or batting into many small pieces. Hang these from a fence or other easily-seen location. It has to be easy for the hummingbird to take, but not blow away in the wind. How about putting cotton fiber shreds in an onion bag or clean suet feeder cage to hold the nesting materials?

Don't use drier lint to offer birds as nesting material! These artificial fibers aren't good and may contain residues of detergents and fabric softener chemicals.

Put out nesting material in early spring (March) and leave it out until about August.

Here is a hanger with nesting material in it. The reviews all say that nesting birds gathered the material--sparrows, chickadees, and others. There is a refill material too.

Hummingbird house hoax

Okay, there are lots of decorative little wooden or woven gourd-like nest box houses called "hummingbird houses" you can buy. Hummingbirds do not nest in cavities. There are no kind of enclosed houses that hummingbirds like to nest in. In fact, no birds will nest inside these little houses. These hummingbird houses do not work. These are ornamental knickknacks. Not sure what I'm talking about? Check out these knickknacks at Amazon (any photos showing birds using these houses are fake, they have been cut and pasted in).

The largest woven grass hummingbird houses, at 9x4x4 inches, are possibly large enough for House Wrens or House Finches. Maybe.

It's so sad. I read the online reviews. Everyone is so excited to receive their new hummingbird house. "Can't wait for the hummingbirds to come!"

They are still waiting.

There does appear to be one type of hummingbird nesting platform that does work. Duncraft sells one here (not an affiliate link). Here's a video of it.

It mimics a branch and attaches under the eaves of your house. Here strong winds are blocked and it is always in needed shade.

Still, I'm worried this Duncraft nest is too exposed. I fear that any jays or crows (or even house sparrows) that come along will find and eat the eggs or nestlings. If anyone has any experience with these, please leave a note in the comments. If it works, I'd like to be able to tell people. Thanks.

Protecting hummingbird nests

Sometimes hummingbirds may place their nests in a location that seems sure to fail. And it might. First time nesting birds often fail. But they do gain experience with subsequent nesting attempts.

Most hummingbird chicks do not live to adulthood. Think about it. Two eggs. Two broods per year. That is 4 young per year. Hummingbirds probably live an average of 4 years. One pair the first year leads to 6 birds in year two, that's 3 breeding pair. That's 12 eggs in year two. Plus the previous 6 birds is 9 breeding pairs. 36 eggs in year 3. Plus 18 previous birds. In year 4 the first pair dies. But if all eggs hatch and all grow up to breed in 4 years they would have 52 descendants and lay over 100 eggs in year 4.

Obviously, this doesn't happen. If the population is stable it means that 2 offspring every 4 years live to adulthood and replace the original pair. On average. Less than that and they go extinct eventually. More than that they take over the world.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that most hummingbird nesting attempts fail to raise birds to adulthood. In hummingbirds that is one year old.

You can try to protect hummingbird nests. But realistically, many are going to fail. Be prepared.

It is hard to protect hummingbirds from nest predators. The predators include house cats, squirrels, rats, jays, crows, snakes. Keeping the nest hidden in a bush is the best protection. That's why hummingbird nests are often camouflaged with lichens and pieces of bark to match the branch.

One way birds reduce the risk of nest predators is to hatch the eggs and get the young fledged and out on their own as soon as possible. Many birds incubate for 2 weeks and have chicks in the nest 2 weeks and they are grown. Hummingbirds take longer, as we've already discussed. 2-1/2 weeks of incubation. 3 weeks of nestlings. Keeping the nest hidden is a priority.

But the biggest hummingbird nest predator is people. We often find nests when trimming bushes. Or, if we find a nest we keep checking up on it. This can stress the mother hummingbird. But it can also lead other predators to the nest if we trample a path or bend back a branch to see.

Our "love" for birds has led to laws to protect birds from us.

Hummingbirds, their feathers, their nests, and their eggs are protected by law, as with all other birds except starlings and house sparrows. As much as you are tempted to remove the cute little nests after the breeding season, don't do it.

You may like: Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder?

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