Hummingbird Airbrakes?

by Mike
11/27/98

text and graphics by Mike Simons

Late Saturday morning last weekend I heard this little "chirp", and then again, and again, every minute or so. At first I thought the smoke alarm batteries were telling me they needed to be changed. But no, it wasn't nearly loud enough. Perhaps it was one of my neighbors' smoke alarms? No, it wasn't harsh enough. It was too natural. Too lonely.

I figured it must be a bird, but it seemed odd that there was no 'song' quality to this chirp. This was a lone chirp with no preamble, no flourish, and no audible response from another. So I went into my backyard to look for this bird (a finch? a sparrow? certainly not a cactus wren, a quail, or a thrasher).

Almost immediately I heard it again, loud and clear, coming from my neighbor's yard. And it was immediately followed by the "vzzz vzzz vzzz vzzz" of a hummingbird. I spotted the little hummingbird, which was hovering just over their mesquite tree. This was a sound I am familiar with, the sort of chirp-rattle of a hummingbird. But what was making that other sound?

While watching the hummingbird, pondering the source of the "chirp" sound, I saw the hummingbird climb into the blue sky. Higher and higher, probably 50 feet or more into the air. There it paused, and then dove straight down toward the mesquite tree! This was new to me! I'm not sure, but I do believe that the little hummer was flapping the whole way down, accelerating all the way. About 10 feet above the ground, or just inches above the mesquite, the hummer suddenly leveled out and pulled up. At that very instant I heard that mysterious "chirp" sound! The hummer paused just above the mesquite, hovered, and repeated that familiar "vzzz vzzz vzzz vzzz" sound.

Climb. Dive. Chirp. Vzzz vzzz vzzz vzzz. Climb. Dive. Chirp. Vzzz vzzz vzzz vzzz. I watched as the hummer repeated this process nearly a dozen times. No other hummers came near. Was this a territory-marking thing? Was this a 'Come see my nice mesquite tree!' call to a mate? Was the hummingbird making this call, or was this the sound made by the bird's feathers, due to the rapid change in speed and direction?

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