Outdoors

Male Anna’s hummingbirds hit the brakes to court a mate

Nothing gets your attention as fast as a smoke alarm — especially when it wants its batteries changed. I’ve always hated that nagging beeping, but it has become less annoying now that I associate it with hummingbirds. Our alarms don’t exactly beep. They whistle. It’s a sharp whistle about one second long. Right now, it sounds like smoke alarms are going off throughout the yard.

The male Anna’s hummingbird who claims a large part of the yard must be losing weight. He is doing his “dive” performance almost nonstop.

That’s where the alarm whistle comes in. When I first heard this sound, I blamed it on the gray squirrels. It had to be the squirrels because as far as I knew, there aren’t any birds that whistle like that.

Resident Anna’s hummingbirds are still a pretty new acquisition in most Northwest yards. We aren’t familiar with all of their actions or habits. I didn’t know what an Anna’s dive sounded like. For decades, it has been the rufous hummingbird who does his territorial-mating dive. He doesn’t whistle.

Our ancient Beauty Bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) is the center of this action. Work in that part of the yard and you will soon hear these sharp, short and high-pitched whistles.

It isn’t difficult to determine where the male Anna’s is performing. Just hold your head back as far as possible and look high into the sky when you hear that distinctive sound. You must look straight up, and keeping your balance is a challenge. The reward is seeing this tiny bird about 75 feet in the air as he gets ready to dive.

For a couple of seconds he hangs motionless at the top of his climb. Then he drops straight down like a bullet and suddenly — he disappears. It’s amazing. You can see his descent for about 4 or 5 feet and then there is nothing. He will pull out from this dive just a few feet from the ground and swing to one side. Then this performance is repeated, again and again. You will have plenty of time to learn the pattern of his dive.

A hummingbird’s whistle is made just before he pulls out of the steep dive. That’s when the brakes go on and in a hummer’s world those brakes are his tail feathers. When they snap open to stop his fall, the air moving through these feathers makes the harsh whistle. It’s his way of screeching his brakes.

When a male hummingbird, Anna’s or rufous, is performing his death-defying dives, the bird is either showing off for a female or he is issuing territorial challenges to other males who may have strayed into his territory.

His performance is designed to impress a female as it ends close to where she is perched. Spot a female watching the action, and you will see what appears to be a totally unimpressed lady. She sits on the limb of a nearby tree or bush, turning her head this way and that, looking like she hasn’t seen anything that impresses her.

I also suspect my bright red gardening sweatshirt brings on these territorial challenges. They’re too frequent when I am in the area or even walking past it.

The dives must work, however. In a few weeks, there will be female Anna’s hummingbirds doing all the work of nest-building, egg brooding and then raising the two tiny babies. The males are “Good-time Charlies” that love ’em and leave ’em. They’re all show, and this goes for both the Anna’s and the rufous. They are entertaining though, so when the whistling begins, take some time to look up and take in the show.

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