Because They Don't Know The Words.

I’m considering challenging my friend and fellow blogger, Jonny, to a bird nerd-off.

When I first came up with this idea, I thought I’d be all badass and throw down my Osprey post and my Chicken Haikus and my VelociRaven musings and say, “Come on, Jon. Whadya got, man? Bring it!!”

But then I thought, this is a bad idea.

Because despite his urban surroundings, Jon’s bird nerd Kung Fu is strong. He posted this about a visit he and his wife made to The Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill. Look at how close he was able to get to these magnificent birds. Lucky bastard. Also, he posted this video of another bird nerd giving a bird nerd lecture about, in part, the fact that some species of birds have gigantic internal testicles. I mean, how do I compete with that?

Plus, as if a lesson on giant internal bird testicles isn’t hard enough to beat, Jon has a crew of bird nerd disciples at his beck and call, just waiting to do his bidding. Birding. There’s the aforementioned wife, who sounds like a bird nerd black belt, and Jon also has this friend who takes bird nerdery and translates it into artistic nirvana.

So you’re probably asking yourself why I would ever consider for a minute throwing down a bird nerd-off challenge in the face of someone with such clear bird nerding skills and resources.

Because bird nerds are gluttons for punishment, that’s why.

I’ll go with California hummingbirds for a thousand, Alex...

Recently, I did a couple of posts on a Berkeley scientist's findings about Anna’s Hummingbirds. Using high-speed photography, he figured out that:

A) although most fighter jet pilots pass out at 7 g's, male Anna’s Hummingbirds pull nearly 10 g’s when they do their supersonic courtship dive.


B) that in the course of this dive, air moving at high speeds over the hummingbird’s tail feathers cause the very distinctive “chirp” that the hummingbird makes as he pulls out at the bottom of this supersonic maneuver – a spectacular event that the male does in front of the female that I call “The Big Move.”

The major discovery here was that the sound made by the hummingbird was not a vocalization, but rather an intentional manipulation of its body to produce an appealing noise.

(You can see by now that my own bird nerding skills are not insignificant. I’m not a fool who would throw down a bird nerd-off challenge lightly. Duh.)

To be honest, I had a little bit of a problem with the write-up of this scientist’s “discovery” because the articles that I read on this topic implied that Anna’s Hummingbirds didn’t make any vocalizations at all – that this tail chirp was the only noise they made.

Now, any good bird nerd knows that this is a ridiculous thing to imply. Anyone in California who has ever had a hummingbird feeder has seen Anna’s Hummingbirds chasing each other away from the feeder while emitting high-pitched chirping noises that sound a lot like a toy ray gun.

I took the following video standing right beside my hummingbird feeder. It’s not a perfect video – these little buggers are really hard to catch – but you can clearly see the male Anna’s Hummingbird flying in and out of the frame, screaming his fool head off at both me and another hummingbird (who is perched on the feeder to my right, out of frame). The hummingbird at the feeder, by the way, is hollering back at the first one, and at one point, they were going at it so close to my right ear, it kind of startled me and I lost focus and turned towards the noise. Still, the whole point was recording the sounds, which the video does fine.

And let me tell you, the noises these birds are making ain’t from their tail feathers.

At the time, it didn’t really bother me too much that the Berkeley scientist in question wanted to de-emphasize the other vocalizations that hummingbirds make in order to keep the focus on his own discovery concerning hummingbird tail feather chirps.

I figured, no biggie. Dude wants to have his moment.

But then I read this article by Diane Ackerman in the New York Times.

Money quote:

"While most birds are busy singing a small operetta of who and what and where, hummingbirds are virtually mute. Such small voices don't carry far, so they don't bother much with song. But if they can't serenade a mate, or yell war cries at a rival, how can they perform the essential dramas of their lives?”

Talk about straining credibility as a naturalist. Has this woman ever even watched hummingbirds? “Mute Dancers?” For reals, lady? God. Factually incorrect and overly-flowery writing. My two least favorite things all wrapped up in one article.

Just so we naturalists are all on the same page...

Hummingbirds do sing songs. And not just simple chirps that grunt out a territory or scare off threats, but real, actual, songs.

Here’s another video I shot of a male Anna’s Hummingbird. This time he's actually singing a little song. Short and clear. Turn it up and plug in the speakers – hummingbirds sing in falsetto.

And lest you think this is a fluke, here’s another video I shot of a hummingbird singing the same song, taken just off the Coast Highway. (Hence the car noise. Sorry. Again, turn it up.)

Here’s one of a hummingbird singing his heart out in the redwoods outside of my front door. And another. In fact, they sing this song all the time. And they sing it loud – look at the effort they put in to belting out their music. They’re like itty, bitty roosters. If one hears another singing this tune, then he has to burst into song himself. Sometimes if I listen carefully and the day is still, I can hear three or four calling and responding to each other, one after the other.

I looked on YouTube for other videos of hummingbirds singing. While researching, I learned that the Anna’s Hummingbird is the only hummingbird that sings in North America. (Which is still no excuse for ignorance, Diane Ackerman.)

I found a few cool videos of hummingbird vocalizations - but not many - and I couldn’t find anything that indicated that anyone was doing any research on hummingbird vocalizations by slowing down the audio recordings and analyzing them. Which would be neat because these songs sound pretty complex to me.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that hummingbird songs contain subliminal messages from The Operator.

Probably warning me against taking on Jon.

Okay, Operator. Message received, loud and clear.

In fact, I'll close with a wonderful super-slow motion video of hummingbirds in flight that should make Jon and the rest of you bird nerds exceedingly happy. Watch the whole thing. As if I have to tell you. Glaven.


  1. Oh, man. See. This makes my point EXACTLY. You're unbeatable.

  2. Well. I will look at the rebuttal in a minute. But for now, I say Bravo! Jendo! Just this very afternoon I was startled by my frontporchhummer. He apparently is ready for new syrup. Yes. He buzzed. And then he sat on his tinyweeny branch and read me the riot act. So, the syrup is on it's way.

    Oh. The PBS movie was very very excellent and interesting. The photography compelling, the information mind-boggling.

  3. Jen, I was laughing my way through your post enjoying the antics of you bird nerders. I love your hummer videos and thought of my son's mil in Oregon and the riot of hummers that entertain watchers endlessly outside her kitchen window. But then I got to the video at the end and became totally mesmerized. I posted that video to my Facebook and my blog. I hope many watch and come away from the experience rested and content.

  4. Thank you, ladies! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and video. I could talk about hummingbirds all day (as if you couldn't tell). And Annie, thanks for the repost. It makes me happy that you liked it enough to share!