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Why Might a Female Hummingbird Have Male Plumage?

Female hummingbirds with male plumage can be a fascinating anomaly. This rare occurrence may be a survival tactic, confusing predators and competitors, or a genetic quirk. Such mimicry could offer insights into the complexities of avian biology and behavior. What other secrets could these tiny, vibrant creatures be hiding in their feathers? Join us as we uncover the mysteries of hummingbird plumage.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

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.

Over 25% of female Jacobin hummingbirds have evolved to have brightly-colored male-type plumage, in order to avoid aggression from males and access more food.
Over 25% of female Jacobin hummingbirds have evolved to have brightly-colored male-type plumage, in order to avoid aggression from males and access more food.

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.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • Over 25% of female Jacobin hummingbirds have evolved to have brightly-colored male-type plumage, in order to avoid aggression from males and access more food.
      Over 25% of female Jacobin hummingbirds have evolved to have brightly-colored male-type plumage, in order to avoid aggression from males and access more food.