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Why Might a Female Hummingbird Have Male Plumage?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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The "glass ceiling" may be a human construct, but the animal kingdom is also rife with examples of when it's easier to be a male – or appear to be one, at least.

To study the phenomenon of female hummingbirds sporting male-type plumage, researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute studied 400 white-necked Jacobin hummingbirds in Panama. Strikingly, they noted that over 25 percent of the females had developed physical characteristics typically present only in males, including white bellies and tails, and iridescent blue heads.

Usually, the females of this species are rather drab by comparison, with feathers in muted colors. The researchers believe that evolution has allowed some female hummingbirds to develop a more male appearance in order to have better access to food, and to feed without having to endure pecking and body slamming, which female hummingbirds are often subjected to by their male counterparts.

The scientists added that the change in plumage points to a little-understood truth about these small-but-tough birds: “They’re constantly fighting with each other … aggression is a big part of their lives," study author Jay Falk said.

Some humdingers about hummingbirds:

  • Unlike other migratory birds, hummingbirds travel alone, sometimes as far as 500 miles (805 km) at a time.

  • Hummingbirds can do something that no other bird can do: fly backwards.

  • Research shows that hummingbirds typically return on a regular basis to the place where they hatched.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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