Watching hummingbirds in slow motion has turned up new insights into their behavior. Christopher Clark of Yale University made a high-speed film of variously shaped feathers in a wind chamber, showing how the courtship sounds of male hummingbirds are all about wind passing through tail feathers during steep aerial dives.
Clark’s research, published in the journal Science in September 2011, shows that the males of each hummingbird species have their own signature sound – largely determined by whether and how the fluttering frequencies of different tail feathers interact with one another and blend together.
Clark demonstrates how tweaking the angle of a single feather can change its sound or – in the case of the Anna’s hummingbird – how the interplay of two outer feathers can amplify sound. A male hummingbird’s mating success could depend on how well he masters aerodynamic moves – either to show off his flying skill or to generate an alluring sound.
In a video premiering on the PBS Nature series in 2010, wildlife cinematographer Ann Prum describes how her perception of hummingbirds totally changed after she opened a window to their world using a high-speed, high-definition camera called the Phantom. After filming hummingbirds in North and South America at up to 500 frames per second, she could see they acted “tough as nails” in slow motion. Evidence of their robustness is apparent in the film.
Her film not only illuminates hummingbird behavior – impossible to see at regular speed – but shows other unique angles on these tiny birds, such as how they appear from a lens planted deep inside a flower.
Click here to watch a high-resolution clip featuring special imagery and describing how she made the film, or click on the video below.
Bottom line: Christopher Clark discovered how male hummingbirds use aerodynamics to generate sounds with tail feathers during courting displays. Clark, from Yale University, and his team published the results of their study in the September 9, 2011, issue of Science. Cinematographer Ann Prum used the high-speed Phantom camera to produce slow motion footage that revealed an in-depth look at hummingbird behavior. Her film premiered on the PBS show Nature in 2010.
Holly Clark Coburn is a freelance editor and writer. She studied biology and art at a liberal arts school and received an MFA in creative writing.