Nancy Newfield Nancy L. Newfield has been watching hummingbirds at her Louisiana home and lots of other places since 1975. Nancy lost her amateur status years ago, and now writes and lectures on hummers. She is co-author of Hummingbird Gardens, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Nancy is also a licensed hummingbird bander and a recognized authority on hummingbird distribution, behavior, and taxonomy.

October 1997

Hearing Voices He's bringing food for his babies." Most of us first learn about birds visually. With their bright colors and interesting behaviors, birds certainly are a feast for the eyes.

"Listen to the Mockingbird. The Mockingbird sings all night long!" our parents teach us. Only after we have learned to watch birds, do we learn about bird voices. And, for some reason, we learn very little about hummingbird voices.

Most people believe that hummers emit a high-pitched squeak or twitter. But, that is just not so. Most hummer voices are not particularly high-pitched. And, most hummers produce a variety of vocalizations to communicate with each other and with other creatures.

Make a point to listen to your hummers. As each bird glides effortlessly from one blossom to the next, it often produces a single note, called a chip note, which alerts other hummingbirds its presence. Except for a few closely related species, different species give identifiably different chip notes.

Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds emit a soft, plaintive "tchew", while Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds make a hard "clik", and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds give a musical "chirp". The elegant Blue-throated Hummingbird announces itself with a high, thin "seek", a call reminiscent of the Tufted Titmouse. Sparkling turquoise-blue Broad-billed Hummingbirds make a raspy sound similar to that of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Sometimes, these notes are rapidly run together during aggressive encounters or when the bird is disturbed. During chases, the calls are run together so rapidly that single notes cannot be discerned. Often, a shrill squeal is heard in the heat of combat, but it may not be possble to determine which combatant makes the sound.

Hummingbird songs have not been well-studied and not all hummers sing. An exception is the Anna's Hummingbird, which combines a dazzling aerial display with a harsh unmelodic song for its courtship. In the 1970s, Gary Stiles wrote a perceptive study of the various elements of the Anna's breeding system. However, there has been little analysis of the songs of other North American hummers nor the role they may play in courtship. Blue-throated, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, and Lucifer Hummingbirds have all been noted to sing, but none do so regularly (and loudly) enough for their voices to have been studied.

Numerous tropical hummingbirds sing more regularly than do their temperate kin. Members of the streaky, drably colored group called hermits rely more heavily on their songs than any other kinds of hummers. These forest-dwelling birds form groups, called leks (or singing assemblies). For them, brilliant reflective colors are of little value, so their vocalizations play a more important role in breeding.

Make a point to listen to your hummers. Vocalizations are often the first clue that a hummer is present. By learning the various sounds and their context for the bird, you will enhance your appreciation for the glittering gems you've learned to enjoy with your eyes!

Happy Hummingbirding!

Copyright © 1997
Nancy L. Newfield
Casa Colibri
Metairie, LA

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