Hummingbird male shines for a split second

broad-tailed hummingbird male performs spectacular dive

In order to seduce as many females as possible, a broad-tailed hummingbird male performs tight diving courtship flights. He combines movement, colour and sound into a spectacular whole, Ben Hogan and Cassie Stoddard show.

With a striking display, a broad-tailed hummingbird male (Selasphorus platycercus) tries to gain a female’s interest. He performs a number of U-shaped dives, getting down from great height (up to 30 meters!) while his wings are trilling. The lowest point of the dive is close to the targeted female, which is perched. At that point, he will give everything he’s got: he rushes past her with a top speed of more than 20 meters per second while his tail feathers produce buzzing sounds. The female perceives his iridescent gorget rapidly shifting from bright red to dark green. Then he climbs up to enable a new dive.

The show is so fast that we can’t see what exactly happens. But Ben Hogan and Cassie Stoddard made video and audio recordings of a large number of shows and analyzed them.

Blink of an eye

An entire dive takes about 6.5 seconds. At the lowest point, the small bird appears to tightly synchronize the components of the show, as the analysis revealed. As a result, top speed, buzzing sounds and colour change almost coincide, all occurring within 300 milliseconds, a human blink of the eye. When he rapidly rises again from the lowest point, the pitch of wing- and tail-generated sounds drops sharply, as when a car with a siren is passing by (the Doppler effect).

The whole is meant to make an overwhelming impression on her. But she is used to see shows like his, because all males perform them. The hummingbird males do not contribute to nest construction or care for the young, leaving all of the work to the females. They try to sire young with as many females as possible. With their tightly synchronized dive, they advertise their genetic quality, promising healthy and attractive offspring.

But is he able to seduce a female? The researchers have not yet figured out what exactly makes a show appealing and how it is performed perfectly in her eyes.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Greg Schechter (Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

Hogan, B.G. & M.C. Stoddard, 2018. Synchronization of speed, sound and iridescent color in a hummingbird aerial courtship dive. Nature Communications 9: 5260. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-07562-7