Hummingbirds have developed strategies and physical characteristics that guarantee exclusive food supplies. Their lives depend on it.
Some hummingbirds are “residents” and establish feeding territories which they will fight to defend. Some hummingbirds are “territorial” and will defend an area of rich flowers for as long as they are in bloom or until the migration instinct moves them along.
Other hummingbirds have developed curved long bills that guarantee that there is no competition for the nectar of the flowers they sample.12 The most fascinating hummingbird feeding methods are called traplining and peripheral foraging.
Traplining is a method of foraging where the hummingbird has a “flight plan” that wanders through the same few flowers over long distances. This kind of hummingbird has longer wings and hovers
and flies more efficiently because it is not built for maneuvers needed to defend a territory.
Traplining hummingbirds fly faster between flowers that are farther apart. The seconds that are saved allow them to eat more food (gather more energy) than it took to fly fast.
Traplining has been known to save a hummingbird 35-40% in expended energy because food is gathered more efficiently and
no energy is used to defend a territory.
There are some quaint variations among trapliners. Two hummingbirds, the green violet-ear and the stripe-tailed, are “realistic” about their food consumption. If it is too much work to defend a territory, then they will trapline, switching back and forth as opportunity presents.
Three species of hummingbirds allow each gender to eat however they like. The males of the purple-throated mountain gem, broadtailed hummingbirds and Anna's hummingbirds are often territorial and the females usually prefer traplining. Their wings are different within the species.2
Rufous hummingbirds defend their territory and practice “peripheral feeding.” Early in the morning, they fly out to the outer edge of their territory and feed on the flowers there first. It is a first-come-first-serve strategy that creates a kind of “fire break” of unappealing flowers. If the Rufous hummingbird did not do this, then “territory parasites” - hummers that steal nectar where they can could endanger the food supply and therefore the life of the hummingbird.12
Every strategy and adaptation allows the hummingbird to survive and flourish. Some reports would like to believe that hummingbird fights are mild training, fun and exercise. Perhaps in courtship but nothing the hummingbird does is wasted and so they remind us to tend and harvest our resources with fierce responsibility.