How the Hummingbird Got Its Hum

An Anna's hummingbird in flight.

Summer hikes in the Rocky Mountains are frequently pierced by a hum that can deepen to a bomber-like buzz as hummingbirds flit by. They’re so small and fast that they’re hard to see, but they’re never hard to hear. A new study pins down just where that telltale hum comes from.

To determine the specific origin of the hummingbird’s sound, researchers observed hovering hummingbirds with an array of over 2,000 microphones and multiple high-speed cameras. With this set-up, they could create a 3D acoustic map of the bird’s sounds, correlated with its motions. They found that the bird’s sounds come primarily from aerodynamic forces generated during their distinctive wingstroke – not from vortices or the fluttering of their feathers.

They also found that the hummingbird’s fast wingstroke — about 40 times per second — fed into sounds at 40 and 80 Hz, as well as higher frequency overtones. Since these sounds are well within human hearing range, they make up most of what we hear from the birds. (Image credit: P. Bonnar; research credit: B. Hightower; via The Guardian; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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