Male hummingbirds try to impress females by making it sound like they’re flying faster than they are

Published: April 23, 2018

Male Costa's hummingbird [Credit: Alan D. Wilson - NaturesPicsOnline]

Out in the wild, animals will do anything they can to find a mate. They’ll fight for them,  scream to attract them, and — as a new study on hummingbirds shows – lie to them.

The study, written by researchers at the University of California, says that male Costa’s hummingbirds, who “dance” to attract female attention, purposely manipulate the sound they make when they execute a dive, making it appear that they are faster fliers than they really are.

It’s basically the hummingbird equivalent of photoshopping your Tinder profile. Since female hummingbirds are impressed by fast fliers, the males who can fake speed have a better shot at making a match.

Female Costa's Hummingbird
Female Costa’s hummingbirds — who are less brightly coloured than the males — seem to select their mates based on various criteria, including their flying speed. [Credit: carolinabirds.org/DickDaniels]
So how do they do it? Well, the hummingbirds studied wooed their mates by executing four-metre dives to either side of their love interest, but by manipulating the angle of their dive, the males could mask the pitch of the noise they generated. The doppler effect — the change in pitch of a sound as it moves past an observer — generally tips the females off as to how fast the males fly, but by altering their flight path, the males can conceal the “doppler curve” from the females. The researchers also found that they angle their tail feathers toward the females to make their dives louder.

The study gives us just a tiny glimpse into the world of hummingbirds — a word we know surprisingly little about, according to biologist Christopher Clark, the study’s lead author.  

“People love hummingbirds and the displays are fantastic and eye catching,” Clark told Gizmodo. “But we just don’t know a lot about them.”

The scientists studied the movement of the males by using a wind tunnel to create a spatial model of the variations in dive sounds.

Wind tunnel
Complex modelling went into figuring out how the hummingbirds affect the sounds of their dives. [Credit: Current Biology/Christopher J. Clark]
Other hummingbird species do things a little differently, with males flying directly over the females or showing them their feathers, but the male Costa’s have evolved to do what most impresses the females of its species, which apparently involves speedy flights.

According to Clark, the key to understanding this behaviour begins not with the males, but with the females and their preferences. After all, since the females get the final say in mate selection, their personal predilections are ultimately what drive the male behaviour.

Eventually, Clark hopes to do further studies to help us understand just what it is that females are looking for in a mate.

“What’s going on inside the females’ head is just a interesting is what the males are doing.”

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