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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us