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The Death of a Hummingbird

March 21, 2018  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  20 comments

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.

20 comments
  1. Jeannette says:

    Phenomenal photo – great job

  2. Vincent says:

    Such a beautiful bird, my favorite type of bird. So painful…It is indeed to see a dead hummingbird, I never saw one like this hummer before. Your reasoning abut his death makes a lot of sense, but so do the others in the comments of this section. Long ago, about fifteen years ago, I was walking my pit-bull dog ‘Mona’, it was a milled rainy evening, and she smelled something by the sidewalk. I bent over to see what it was she was so curious about, and it was a hummingbird, all wet laying on the pavement. Mona didn’t even make an attempt to bite it, she was just smelling the tiny bird. I pick it up and noticed the little bird was still alive! I gently protected it between my hands against the cold and the rain as I headed home with Mona behind me. Once inside I showed the fallen hummingbird to my aunt, and she immediately got a small cardboard box and made a few holes on it. Next we put the little
    bird in it and had to put it in another room because of our cats. We also put shredded soft paper in the box so the hummer would stay warm through the night. I prayed for the little bird to get well, so next morning, about 7:30am., we got up and went to the room to check on the hummingbird. To our surprise she was doing much better, she was trying to get out of the box! So we took the box with her inside and went near a few tall trees, then we opened the box and I said, “Little Miss Lizzy!” That’s what I named her, “Time to go out.” But she wouldn’t go, she just stood there looking at us with those tiny adorable eyes of hers. Then…all of a sudden she flew from the open box right to my face! I quickly dodged her, and soon she flew higher then those tall trees. She stood in mid air flapping her wings at an incredible speed as the sunshine illuminated her ruby throat and green neck, then she turned her tiny head towards a few flowery bushes and trees on the next block and went straight to them. Even now I still remember that beautiful hummingbird, little Miss Lizzy.

    • Thanks so much for this story, Vincent. In so many ways, hummingbirds live on the edge. They’re feisty. But cold and lack of food can really slow them down — often to the point at which you found little Miss Lizzy. And with warmth and maybe some sugar, they’re good to go again. Basically, they live life fast and short. In any event, thanks again!

  3. Cheryl Keith says:

    LOL Good one!

  4. Meena Haribal says:

    Nice documentation! Once i saw a Ruby-throated trying to attack a Bald eagle. it repeatedly try to hit it with a beak. I was worried he might get stuck in the feathers of the eagle.

  5. Ximena says:

    Don’t they simply die of sadness? Isn’t this the bird that does? Along with elephants. I might be wrong.

  6. Josh says:

    I think (as I believe you already inferred) that the beak pierced the fibrous plant while perhaps foraging and unfortunately when the beak retracted, the tongue did not and was entrapped in the plant fibers that closed back around the beak as it pulled back. An unfortunate way to go.

  7. Bob Mayer says:

    Painful image to look at. There was a great article in the NYT back in September 2017 on mantids and hummingbirds; I wrote about it in a post on my website back then:

    http://www.arbotopia.com/2017/09/

    Many ways for a hummer to meet its end I guess.

  8. judy welna says:

    your theory makes sense. We have a screened gazebo which has been an occasional problem with all the hummingbirds darting around. To our knowledge, none has died…but their bill goes through the screen, trapping them for a few seconds. Their wings continue beating, and they seem to either back up or otherwise remove themselves from the screen. Once there was a small amount of blood at the base of the bill, but the bird appeared ok otherwise. In your picture, it looks as if the bill went through the stem, and the stem turned brown above that point. Without knowing the density of that stem, is it possible the bird flew into it in the way it might fly into a screen house, but without the easy exit capability? It would make sense that it used its own feet against the stem, near where the bill was stuck, which might explain the scales on its talons.
    A sad mystery…such a beautiful bird

    • Bryan says:

      Thanks, Judy. Yes, the fatal screen doors! The odds seem to remote about getting stuck in a stem in a similar way. But low odds, over the course of evolution, are a fact of nature as well. 🙂

  9. Susan Sawyer says:

    Once a hummer got its beak stuck in our porch screen and died. Same deal — why? And bug hunting is all I can come up with.

  10. Christine Sibona says:

    This image completely bums me out.

  11. Patricia Brauch says:

    What a bizarre photo indeed! Perhaps this hummer was fending off another male in it’s territory, and miscalculated his path. I witnessed this a few years ago on my deck here in Orange. Two males were goin’ at it, whizzing through the air in the yard like dog-fighters. The next instant I turned to see one with its beak impaled through our clothesline, fluttering madly to try to get itself unstuck. I freaked out (cuz that’s what I do when I see an animal in distress!) and screamed for the husband to DO something, and quick!!! I know the tiniest lives, with the fastest metabolisms, whether hummingbirds or mice can die quickly from the stress of the danger. Well, he rescued it and it hopefully survived with a lesson learned to pay closer attention to its flight path.

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