Male hummingbirds can be very vicious bachelors during mating season, pecking and body slamming the apples of their tiny eyes, which may surprise you given their daintiness (they can shimmy through waterfalls though so pretty tough, I guess). To avoid the overbearing attempts, it appears that the females have devised a cunning plan to blend in with the brilliantly colored courting attire of men on the prowl by upgrading their plumage to match the brightly colored courting attire of males on the prowl. Girls with wits Recent research published in the journal Current Biology details the discovery.
The study focused on white-necked Jacobin hummingbirds in Panama, a species that often exhibits sexual dimorphism, which means males and females have differing appearances. Females have a more muted color scheme of greens, grays, and blacks than males, who have a brilliant iridescent blue that is accented by vibrant white on the tail and belly. That is unless the girls have had their fill of being pushed around by lustful males.
In a statement, first author Jay Falk, who led the research as part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said, “One of the ‘aha moments’ of our study was when I observed that all of the young females had striking colors.”
“That’s odd for birds because when the males and females are different, the youngsters nearly always appear like the adult females, not the adult males, and this is true practically everywhere for birds. It was odd to come across one in which the youngsters resembled the males. So it was evident that something was going on.”
According to their findings, approximately 20% of adult females have chosen male plumage, failing to transition from the flashy colors of their childhood to the muted feathers of female adulthood, as is the usual for the other 80% of females. It’s unclear whether the flip, or lack thereof, is due to heredity, the environment, or the female’s active choice, but the researchers believe it’s likely related to females preferring to avoid harassment while feeding or during mating season.
The researchers used fake hummingbirds to examine how actual hummingbirds reacted to them in order to come to their results. The method found that imitation hummingbirds with female-like plumage were considerably more likely than their flamboyant counterparts to be harassed.
The fact that females have flashy feathers when they are young and not hunting for a mate proves that male plumage provides no sexual benefit, so the birds must be displaying these feathers for another reason. One possible explanation is that the male feathers provide a social benefit to the birds by preventing them from being beaten up by bolshie boy birds during mealtimes.
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