The Death of a Hummingbird
In the struggle for existence, here’s a loser. Or so it would seem. I found this Costa’s Hummingbird on Saturday, already gone, in the riparian zone along the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona.
So how did he die?
To be sure, hummingbirds take nectar. Lots of it. And during my trip to the deserts of the Southwest, Costa’s Hummingbirds were nectaring on most anything flowering, including that ocotillo pictured here. Costa’s Hummingbird will drink from the tiny flowers of desert lavender or the giants of saguaro cactus — and lots in between. But hummingbirds also eat invertebrates, including small flies that they nab on the wing or spiders that they glean from vegetation.
Nectar is now scarce in the desert of Arizona and California, owing to a drought that has left the Sonoran desert even more parched and sparse than is normal this time of year. So I suspect that hummingbirds may be turning more to invertebrates, particularly during the demands of the breeding season, which has already begun for them.
Perhaps a spider on that stem led to this hummer’s death. An errant or aggressive poke at the prey might have caused the Costa’s to pierce the stem of that wetland plant — a plunge from which it could not escape, and from which resulted in a broken bill tip (I think he’s hanging by his tongue). Although you can’t see it in this image, purple scales from the Costa’s gorget were stuck to one of his talons, suggesting a struggle to escape.
A troubling image, to be sure. It’s probably the first I’ve ever seen of a hummingbird’s actual death — even if it appears to be an unusual demise. Most hummingbird mortality probably happens in the nest, unseen by us, where eggs and nestling are eaten by predators or washed away in heavy rains. Yet in the struggle for existence, and in evolution by means of natural selection, this particular Costa’s Hummingbird might, in addition to his photo, have actually left behind a legacy: progeny.
Costa’s, like many hummingbirds, are indiscriminate breeders. Males mate with many females (and females might mate with more than one male). During our trip, my pal Josh and I noticed a few hummingbirds already on nests, including Costa’s. So perhaps he wasn’t a complete loser. Maybe before he died on this stem, the Costa’s Hummingbird mated with a female — maybe more than one female. Let’s hope that his offspring are more careful than their father when it comes to poking around for food.
I’m open to other hypotheses on this photo — leave yours in the comments section.
By the way, you can take photos like these. I shot these images with a Nikon Coolpix B700 — the super-zoom I reviewed in my 2018 roundup of point-and-shoot cameras for wildlife. No matter what you own for a camera, learn to shoot in one of my digital photography workshops this spring.