Frank Landis' Blog

What genius looks like in a hummingbird
October 29, 2011, 7:03 pm
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I’ve got a small hummingbird feeder on the back balcony, next to the room where I’ve turned into my office.

Young Anna’s hummingbirds (and the occasional adult) use it regularly, draining it every few days. There’s usually one that sits on the tomato trellis and guards it, but they trade the role around every few weeks.

When the feeder gets low and I have the door open, one hummingbird flies in about two meters, hovers loudly until it has my attention, then turns around and flies back out, ostentatiously dipping its beak once in the empty feeder before it leaves the area.

I know my cue: I clean the feeder, put more sugar water in, and put it back out, and a happy hummingbird comes by in a few minutes to suck down on the fresh sugar. I’ve done this five times now in the last few weeks.

Obviously, cats know how to point at things, but it’s interesting to see the same behavior in something whose body is smaller than the cat’s brain. It doesn’t take much of a brain to be smart, does it?

So far as I can tell, only one bird has figured out how to tell me to change the feeder. It will be fun to see if any of the others learn the trick.

Is this social genius, or problem-solving genius? Or both?

Compare this with the dumb hummingbird, who got trapped in the same room a couple of months ago. He flew in through the open door, and I found him sometime later buzzing around the white ceiling. Did he think it was the sky? He buzzed around, poor little beak touching the ceiling, unwilling to drop even a foot down and go out the door. I lured him out by raising the feeder up to where he could see it, near the wide open door. Once he started drinking from it, I slowly lowered through the door. Once he was outside, he immediately flew away. I don’t know why he didn’t fly back out the door, or why he saw a white ceiling as a blue sky, but he panicked and got stuck.

There you have it. There are smart hummingbirds, and there are dumb hummingbirds. Natural variation on the back balcony.

I’m not sure how to photograph the smart one doing his thing. That’s the next puzzle.


2 Comments so far
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Are you the Frank Landis who has written a few comments about protecting the Del Mar Mesa Preserve? If yes, I am fighting a similar battle in Tierrasanta and would very much appreciate talking to you for some insights. Perhaps you read a recent article in The Reader entitled, “Got a permit for that?” Please contact me at:

Thank you

Comment by Jennifer Cochrane-Schultz

We lived on the Oregon coast for ten years. Every year in late February the Rufous hummingbirds would show up from their migration. I always knew when the first one showed up because he (the males always came a couple of weeks early to get the best territories) would go straight to where the feeder hung right outside of my office window during the previous year. When he didn’t find it there he would buzz back and forth right outside of the window. Once or twice they even tapped on the glass to get my attention. Hummingbirds only live a few years, so this could not have been the same bird year after year.

Then we started 14 years of snowbirding. After the first couple of years we would be greeted – usually within the first half hour – by an Anna’s hummingbird hovering in front of the office window here in Escondido.

Thinking about it, there shouldn’t be too much surprise about these behaviors. For one thing, I’ve read that a substantial part of their brains are used for precisely mapping food locations. And they are very assertive birds in general. Like most feeder birds, they become accustomed to us and know that we provide the food. But only a hummingbird would be so audacious as to demand better, faster service.

Oh, one more thing; about getting trapped hummingbirds out of your house. While the feeder trick does work well, there are other ways, too. If a hummingbird is buzzing against a window that you can get to, walk slowly up to the window, slowly point your finger at the glass, and slowly move your finger towards the bird. If it is at all tired, it will land on your finger and you can just carry it outside. We have a very high window where they sometimes get trapped. We keep a decorative piece of manzanita branch nearby which extends our reach.

Comment by Brian Godfrey

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