Dear Bird Folks,
Without getting into the old joke, I’d like to know if hummingbirds sing. I’ve heard their wings buzz when I’m outside filling their feeder, but I’ve never heard them sing, or say anything for that matter. Do they even talk?
– Dale, Scranton, PA
I have a question for you. Do you know why hummingbirds hum? Well, do you? They hum because they don’t know the words. There, I did it. I know you said you didn’t want to get “into the old joke,” but I told it anyway. You’re not the boss of me. If there’s a joke – new, old, good, bad or terrible – I’m going for it. Besides, there are so few bird jokes out there, I can’t possibly pass if an opportunity presents itself. It’s not like I’m writing about lawyers, priests or rabbis. Birds just aren’t that funny. In fact, they rarely, if ever, walk into a bar. Sure, there is the one about a duck walking into a pharmacy, but I don’t think this audience is ready of that one. (I’ll mail it to you separately…in a plain brown envelope.)
I think most folks would agree that hummingbirds are amazing creatures. But for all of their amazingness, there are a few things they don’t do very well. They can barely walk, their swimming skills are limited and they can’t open pickle jars, no matter how hard they try. They are also lousy singers. Think about it. When was the last time you heard someone complain about being woken up early by crooning hummingbirds? It’s not that they don’t try to sing. Every morning a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird flies to an exposed branch in his breeding territory and sings his heart out. Only instead of sounding like a nightingale, he sounds more like Andy Devine. (Andy Devine?) A couple of raspy growls and chirps are all he can muster. Even I can sing better than that.
Female hummingbirds have their own separate territory to defend, but they handle things differently. When a mother hummer is sitting on her nest and notices an intruder, she typically remains quiet. Her hope is that the other hummingbird will quickly pass by without incident. However, if the encroaching bird decides to hang out for a while and sip from the local flowers, she’ll be forced to take action. She’s not about to share her limited food supply with some low-life moocher. When the female decides enough is enough, she springs into action. There are no caution chirps uttered or warning shots fired. Instead, the female launches herself at the interloper like a winged dart. In most cases the startled invader quickly flies away, far away, to someplace where it can catch its breath and try to figure out what in the world just happened.
It’s not that the females can’t speak, but during the nesting season they try to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Although when she returns to her nest with food, she’ll give off a couple of soft chirps. It’s her way of signaling to the chicks that everything is safe. When mom is away, the nestlings remain quiet and sit motionless. But the instant they hear her voice they pop up, open their mouths wide and say, “What the heck took you so long? We’re hungry!” (How about that? Adult hummingbirds are only able to give off soft chirps, but apparently their kids can speak perfect English.)
Young hummingbirds are the yappiest of them all. As they leave the nest and take their first flight, they can’t contain themselves. They are constantly shrieking and screaming like children on the last day of school. In their excitement to see the world, they often ignore the warning calls given by the adults in neighboring territories. Adult hummingbirds do not discriminate. They don’t have a soft spot in their hearts for other birds’ kids, anymore than I have a soft spot in my heart for kittens. If a young bird stumbles into the wrong territory, it is quickly attacked by the current landlord. Fortunately, young hummers are fast learners. After getting whacked upside the head a few times, they learn which areas to avoid.
Even though hummingbirds have poor singing skills, they are experts in nonverbal communication. Like most birds, hummers have the ability to puff out and spread their tail feathers in order to make themselves look bigger and badder. They can also increase the intensity of the “humming” made by their wings to further announce their displeasure. And male hummingbirds have their own special trick. They can flash their gorget. I know flashing a gorget sounds like something Anthony Weiner got in trouble for doing, but it’s different with hummingbirds. The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird uses his ruby throat (aka, gorget) to help him patrol his turf. When sunlight strikes his gorget at just the right angle, it changes from an uninteresting dark spot into a brilliant, blazing, red beacon. The red gorget acts like an avian stop sign, telling other hummers to halt and go back to wherever they came from. Most birds heed this warning; but if they don’t, they get whacked upside the head.
Hummingbirds do talk, Dale. While their vocal range is limited to only squeaks and chirps, they are able to get their point across by adding flashing colors and wing sounds. Now that I’ve answered your question I’m going to get ready to answer next week’s question, which I’m sure will be either – what is the correct formula for hummingbird food (four parts water to one part sugar), or who the heck is Andy Devine?