Hummingbirds Sometimes Change Their Tune To Attract A Mate
February 15, 2014

Changing Their Tune: Hummingbirds May Change Songs To Attract Mates

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While scientists had long believed that male hummingbirds learned the song they use to attract mates at an early age and used that one vocalization their entire life, new research from biologists at New Mexico State University (NMSU) suggests that some species are capable of changing their tunes later on in life.

According to a February 13 report from Stefan Sirucek of National Geographic, Marcelo Araya Salas and Timothy Wright recently observed some male long-billed hermit hummingbirds (Phaethornis longirostris) in Costa Rica altering their mating songs.

“In most cases this new song also matches those of neighbors,” explained Wright, whose research is funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society. “But occasionally a male will develop a brand-new song type,” he continued, noting that this marks “the first time such open-ended learning has been shown in a hummingbird.”

Wright said that he and his colleagues are now curious whether or not changing the type of song that they sing can actually help the male hummingbirds attract potential mates. Araya Salas, a graduate student in Wright’s lab, is reportedly now in the process of documenting additional song-changing events and whether or not they have any impact on a male’s ability to maintain their territory or hit it off with the ladies.

Sirucek said the male hummingbird is “a dedicated suitor” that frequently revisits the same location every day for periods of up to 8-12 months, constantly singing and competing with other males that are also pursuing mates. He repeats his song twice per second, hoping that a female will hear and respond to his song. Those songs can vary by duration, by individual or by location, creating what experts refer to as “dialects” or “song neighborhoods.”

“I am continually amazed by the effort these males will put into singing, displaying, and defending a territory,” Wright told National Geographic, adding that once they do attract a potential mate, the male hummingbird will begin a ritual during which it will hover back and forth in front of the female partner before copulating.

“Males do a number of different display moves, and the sequence of moves can vary quite a bit from rendition to rendition, even for the same male,” he added. “We are still working to understand how these distinctive moves get strung together to make a full display and whether different sequences communicate more of an aggressive intent versus more of a courting intent.”

The NMSU researchers are now attempting to determine if the hummingbirds’ ability to alter their songs is definitively a strategy used by the creatures in order to attract potential mates, explained Thomas Carannante of Science World Report.

After analyzing the males' other behaviors, including hovering and flicking their tails, Wright’s team believes that it is possible for the creatures to adapt this never before seen ability.