The mystery of Anna’s Hummingbirds

By Janet Carroll | Jun 05, 2013
Courtesy of: Bruce Walters A male Anna’s Hummingbird flying to the feeder. It chases off other hummingbirds coming to feed.

I recently helped to solve a local mystery about the squeak of the Anna’s Hummingbird.

Anna's Hummingbird is native to the West Coast. The bird was named after Anna Masséna, the duchess of Rivoli.

The Anna’s Hummingbird is the only hummingbird you will see in the winter. It stays to feed at our hummingbird feeders, but it also eats flower nectar and insects.

Their numbers have increased in Mukilteo and throughout western Washington because of the many residents who put out feeders to attract this bird.

I don’t have a feeder, but my neighbor does. It’s too shady at my house – and hummingbirds like the sun.

Often when I visited my neighbor, he would ask me about a loud squeak that he sometimes hears from his yard.

I suggested that maybe it was a woodpecker. That was all I could think of, since I never heard the squeak myself.

Finally, I was at my neighbor’s one day, and I too heard a squeak. “There’s the squeak,” my neighbor said. I had no idea what it was.

I heard it several times and started thinking about what it could be. I looked around my neighbor’s yard for a bird, determined to find the squeaker. I saw a Bewicks Wren, Brown Creeper and Anna’s Hummingbird.

I went home and listened to all the calls of the wren and creeper on my i-Touch bird app, but didn’t find a match. Then I looked up Anna’s Hummingbirds at www.allaboutbirds.org.

Anna's Hummingbird is 3.9 to 4.3 inches long and has a bronze-green back, a gray chest and belly, and green flanks. Males have an iridescent crimson-red crown and throat, and a dark, slightly forked tail.

Females have a green crown, a gray throat with some red markings, a gray chest and belly, and a dark, rounded tail with white tips on the outer feathers.

I also found the answer to the mysterious squeak: “In their thrilling courtship displays, males climb up to 130 feet into the air and then swoop to the ground with a curious burst of noise that they produce through their tail feathers,” according to the website.

Ah-ha! They make the sound using their tail feathers.

In “The Bird Watcher’s Handbook,” it calls the burst of noise an “explosive chirp.”

I have tried to watch this behavior, but was never in the right place at the right time. Plus, I probably would need a high-speed video to actually see what the tail feathers are doing.

In the article “The Mysterious Squeak of the Anna’s Hummingbird” by Irby Lovette, also found at www.allaboutbirds.com, Lovette describes how researchers videotaped the courtship behavior and matched the video tape with sound recordings.

The researchers noted that the male’s tail feathers were spread out when the squeaking occurred.

They verified that the tail feathers were making the squeak, much like a flag makes noise in the wind, by moving the tail feathers into an unnatural position in the lab and then videotaping and recording the birds.

No sound was produced at the end of the courtship dive if the feathers were moved.

They also found that they could make the “chirp” artificially by blowing air over a single outer tail feather.

Janet Carroll is a member of the Mukilteo Wildlife Habitat Project. The group is committed to wildlife by creating and enhancing wildlife habitat in Mukilteo and connecting residents with nature. For more information, go to www.mukilteowildlife.org, email mukilteowildlife@gmail.com or phone 425-514-5979.

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