A Quest for Love
With the winter months rolling through and spring on the horizon, the birds are gettin' busy. During this time of year, love is, quite literally, in the air. In the case of Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna), love is 130 feet in the air as males embark on a mission for mates.
Anna's Hummingbird Courtship
It's a falcon, it's a plane! Actually, it's Anna's hummingbird, and it's faster than both. Male Anna's hummingbirds complete their courtship dives at speeds sustaining accelerations that would cause a fighter jet pilot to pass out. According to National Geographic, the dives reach upwards of 60 mph, which, for its size, means that the hummingbird performs twice the acceleration speed of a swooping peregrine falcon.
These little birds plummet to the ground and pull up against nine times the force of gravity, all in an effort to impress females and chance mating with them. Spectacular speeds are hardly all the treasures the charismatic feather-jewels have hiding in their troves; male Anna’s hummingbirds go through more than just great lengths (and speeds) for an opportunity at love.
The Language of "Love" in Bird Behavior
Throughout this article, mating and courtship habits are sometimes used in relation to "love." We must acknowledge and keep in mind that "love" is a human-created term and concept that does not perfectly translate to species whose experiences are vastly different from our own.
You can find Anna’s hummingbirds throughout the Livermore area and all along the Pacific Coast. Lucky for us, these birds tend to be permanent residents, so we can observe them all year long. Both males and females have gray and green feathers, but only the males boast vibrant, iridescent red and pink throat and head feathers. During males’ show-stopping dips and dives, males will orient their display so their magnificent coloring catches the sun’s rays and dazzles their female spectator. Think of Edward Cullen from "Twilight," stunning Bella Swan with his diamond-like skin in the sun.
If you were ever to observe this display in person (or click here to watch a clip), you'd notice a loud chirping noise as the bird dips down. Researchers have found that hummingbirds produce this chirp with their tail feathers! As you can see in the picture above, tail feathers have tiny barbs that vibrate and make a noise that is much louder than what small hummingbird voice boxes are capable of.
Daring dives, fantastical feathers, and clamorous chirps are all ingredients of a successful courtship. If you're going to take a note from Anna's hummingbird this love day, remember to be bold, flashy, and make yourself heard!
The Power of Love (and Names)
This month, we celebrate Valentine's Day. The actual origin of the day, and patron saint "Valentine," is shrouded in mystery, yet millions celebrate every year. Similarly, who is the "Anna" of Anna's hummingbird? And what does that have to do with this specific species of hummingbird?
Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli, is the namesake of Anna's hummingbird. French naturalist René Primevère Lesson named the bird in 1829 in Anna's honor; interestingly enough, due to the regional distribution of the bird, Anna Masséna likely never saw the bird in its native geographic region!
Naming birds after people has historically been a very common practice, but as we know, names have power. In November of this past year, the American Ornithological Society released a statement announcing that 70-80 English-named birds deemed offensive and exclusionary will undergo a name change to new names more befitting birds' unique features and distributions. This process will involve developing a bias-free naming committee and involving the public as much as possible. A few birds found within our LARPD open spaces that will see a change include (but are not limited to) Anna's hummingbird, Steller's jay, Cooper's hawk, and Wilson's warbler.
It's unclear exactly when these changes will go into effect, but the pilot program will begin in 2024. We are excited to embrace the new names and continue to celebrate the birds that frequent our parks. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" and, together, we can all work towards a more inclusive birding community.