Revealed: the bird that sings through its tail

A A A

A small hummingbird has been found to "sing" through its tail feathers rather than its voice-box in the same way a wind musician plays a note on a clarinet.

Scientists have found that the Anna's hummingbird of the American south-west makes a "chirping" sound by dive-bombing at speeds of 50mph to cause wind to rush through its splayed tail feathers. The feathers quiver in the same way that the reed of a clarinet vibrates when a musician plays the instrument to produce a musical note. In this way, the bird is able to produce a noise that is louder than anything its own tiny voice-box can make.

Hear the Anna's hummingbird's 'chirp':







The researchers said it is the first time that any bird has been shown to make a deliberate noise in this way, but they now believe that there may be other species of hummingbirds that can sing through their feathers.

"This is a new mechanism for sound production in birds," said Christopher Clark, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who was part of the study that revealed the hummingbird's secretive tail song.

"The Anna's hummingbird is the only hummingbird for which we know all the details, but there are a number of other species with similarly-shaped tail feathers that may use their tail morphology in producing sounds," said Mr Clark.

The scientists used high-speed cameras to record a male hummingbird's mating display as he dive-bombed a caged female or a stuffed dummy. The video showed how be unfurled his tail feathers for a split second at the nadir of his dive, which corresponded with a short chirp lasting about 60 milliseconds.







Video and Audio © Chris Clark


The dive of the males of many species of hummingbird is an important part of its mating ritual. It serves to ward off other males and to attract females, but exactly how they made the sound remained a mystery.

Ornithologists were divided between those who thought the source of the sound was the bird's tiny "song box" in its throat, while others suggested that the short chirp had something to do with its splayed feathers.

The latest study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, cleared up the controversy by showing that the tail feathers were unequivocally the source of the sound.

When the scientists snipped off the feathers – which grow back in five weeks and do not affect the bird's ability to fly – the males were unable to make the noise. Tests in wind tunnels confirmed that the vanes of the feathers vibrated at the right frequency to make the sound when blown with air travelling at about 50mph.

"Just blowing outward on the tail feather makes the same frequency as in the dive," said Teresa Fao, a member of the research team, who explained that the feather vane vibrated like the reed of a clarinet.

Mr Clark said that the next stage was to identify other species of hummingbird that could have evolved this novel way of "singing" to a mate. Potential candidates include the rufous hummingbird, the tropical woodstar hummingbirds and the bee hummingbird of Cuba.

"Most have funny tail feathers with tapered or narrow tips, all have mating dives and all make a different sound. It's possible that sexual preference by females has caused the shape of the tail feathers, and thus the sound, to diverge, thereby driving the evolution of new species," said Mr Clark.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all