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Hummingbird’s Tuneful Tail

Hummingbird’s Tuneful Tail

By Riaz Bhunnoo

- 01/31/08 - A hummingbird has been found to emit birdsong from its tail feathers, scientists revealed today. Anna’s hummingbird, from South West US, splays its feathers when it dive-bombs producing a chirping sound. Diving at speeds in excess of 50mph causes the wind to rush through its feathers and results in a vibration similar to that of a clarinet reed playing a musical note (listen to the hummingbird chirp via BBC).

The hummingbird dive-bomb is an integral part of its mating ritual and helps ward off other males whilst attracting females. It had previously been thought that the chirping sound originated from its minuscule voice box. This new research suggests an altogether different mechanism for communicating with other birds and paves the way for further studies into sound production by songbirds. Chris Clarke and Teresa Feo from the University of California, who both worked on the project, said: “Many kinds of birds are reported to create 
That's Mr Anna's hummingbird to you.
aerodynamic sounds with their wings or tail, and this model may explain a wide diversity of non-vocal sounds produced by birds”.

The researchers used the latest high speed cameras to observe the male dive-bombing in the presence of a female or a stuffed dummy. The camera clearly picks up the split second splaying of the bird’s tail-feathers at the lowest point of its dive. This was later correlated with a chirping sound which lasted around 60 milliseconds. It is thought that the trailing vane of the birds' out-tail feathers flutter rapidly to produce the sound.

To confirm their findings, the scientists snipped off the male’s tail feathers (which grow back after 5 weeks and don’t stop it flying in any way) and found that it was unable to produce the sound. Wind tunnel tests on the feather veins showed that they vibrate at the right frequency to produce ‘birdsong’ after being blasted with air at 50mph.

Photograph of the little bomber in action.
Click to enlarge
This research now opens up the floodgates for wannabe musical stars from the animal kingdom. With the hummingbird on clarinet, all we need now is the rattlesnake on percussion and the cat with its fiddle to complete the orchestra.

Other avian percussionists

There are many species of bird which make non-vocal noises. Snipe, waterbirds which were a favourite hunting prey of Leo Tolstoy, have a similar display to the hummingbirds, but make a drumming noise as wind passes through their outer tail feathers.

Also putting it's feathers to good use is the club-winged manakin, a small bird from South America. It is the only known species of bird that stridulates - making sound by rubbing to surfaces together, rather like playing a washboard. Each wing has one feather with a series of ridges along its central vane lying next to another with a stiff, curved tip. The bird raises its wings over its back and shakes them back and forth at over a hundred times a second (hummingbirds typically flap their wings only fifty times a second). Every time it hits a ridge, the tip produces a sound. Using this method, the club-winged manakin can produce up to 1,400 sounds per second. (Watch it happening).

Other methods of producing noise without actually having to strain your voice include feet stamping (prairie chickens), bill clacking (e.g. shoebill - watch it), wing clapping (e.g. woodpigeon and short eared owl) and drumming (e.g. woodpeckers - watch a lineated woodpecker on the job). Palm cockatoos also drum - using a drumstick and basking it against a tree. Watch out Phil Collins.

Get more from Riaz or check out these tasty birds:

- Dozy - Narcoleptic chick gets in a pickle
- Filth - Dirty duck does deadly deed
- Contraception - Pigeons put on the pill
- What is that smell? - The birds with a funny niff

Title image: Travis Haney, Hummingbird: MDF/W, Flight path: Chris Clarke

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26 Apr 2009
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