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Sounds of Spring


May 13, 2012 by csukach

By Chris Sukach

After a 2000-mile migration, the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds have returned to Colorado for the summer to nest. This is an interview conducted during the 19th Annual Hummingbird Festival with Starsmore Discovery Center naturalist and resident hummingbird expert Brenda Holmes-Stanciu about the Broad-tails and why they make that cricket-like sound.

Audio Transcript:

It’s a sound that means springtime has come to the Rockies…the trill of the Broad-tailed hummingbird.

It’s a sound that’s celebrated every year during the Annual Hummingbird Festival at the Starsmore Discovery Center in North Cheyenne Canyon Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., when the Broad-tailed hummingbirds complete their 2000-mile journey from their winter homes in Mexico to their nesting grounds in the Rocky Mountains.

Brenda Holmes-Stanciu, a naturalist and resident hummingbird expert at the Starsmore Discovery Center, explains why the Broad-tails make that quick cricket-like sound.

“They use it to their advantage to announce themselves to each other and there’s debate as to how much they can control that sound—make it louder or softer.”

The sound, or trill, comes not from the birds’ beaks but from their wings.

“It’s a space that’s right between their last feathers on both sides.”

And only the male Broad-tails have the trill-making spaces between their feathers.

“The females don’t have that, so the males use that to announce their presence to the females mostly, but also to the males to defend their territories.”

A hummingbird’s territory is based on how many flowers like penstemon, bee-balm and sage are in the area.

“They especially like the tubular flowers because they have more of the nectar, but they’re also going to go to plants that attract insects because they need to eat lots of insects for their vitamins and their minerals and their fats.”

Weighing in at just three grams (or the weight of a penny), the four-inch long Broad-tail is death to small garden pests.

“A gnat is a perfect size for a hummingbird.  They’ll also go up to spider webs and be pulling out insects that were caught or eating small spiders when they can find those.”

Hummingbirds also require a source of moving water to bathe in.

“They need a stream with a splashing kind of going on in order for them to be able to wash their feathers.  So they will fly through the splash that a stream will make in order to be able to wash their feathers.”

With all the splashing and bug eating and trilling these hummingbirds do, the question still remains—do Broad-tails make sounds with their mouths?

“They can talk and you’ll hear that more when they go to a feeder and they’re feeling like they need to defend their territory.  So the males and females will make this like barking noise—it’s more like a dat-dat-dat—rather than a singing noise, but they only do that when they feel like they need to kind of announce their presence.”

The Broad-tails will stay in the Rocky Mountains for the summer and raise their families, then head back to Mexico in the fall when the weather gets chilly here.

Reporting from the Starsmore Discovery Center, I’m Chris Sukach.


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