Female hummingbirds avoid sexual harassment by being flashy

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Birds of a feather flock together, especially when trying to avoid sexual harassment.

According to a new study, some female hummingbirds are going undercover as their male counterparts to avoid harassment from brutes.

It’s widely known that male birds tend to sport feathers flashier than the more muted plumage of female birds — an adaptation of the mating ritual that scientists reckoned help attract partners.

However, a population of white-necked jacobin in Panama caught the eye of scientists recently when they encountered females with the same bright blue head, green shoulders and pearly white bellies as males have, as opposed to the dulled green and white feathers of most females.

Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, whose work was published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology, calculated that nearly 20% of the females were of this flagrant ilk. And, the scientists observed, they seemed to benefit from fewer attacks from males, such as pecking and “body-slamming,” particularly at mealtime.

Some female white-necked jacobin hummingbirds are adopting flashier plumage to avoid harassment from brutish males, a new study has revealed, leading to fewer fights at the feeder.
Alamy Stock Photo

It’s among the first evidence to suggest that birds’ coloring can be a result of “nonsexual social selection” within the species. Previous research has indicated that male and female birds are increasingly inspired by each other when it comes to feathered flare — what scientists believe is part of an evolving defense mechanism.

Notably, the Cornell-Smithsonian team, led by ornithologist Jay Falk, realized that all juvenile female jacobin hummingbirds are brightly colored, like males — a departure from almost all other bird species, in which the opposite is true. Indeed, most male and female birds begin with a dulled coat that comes into its own over time.

White-necked jacobins
Female white-necked jacobin hummingbirds have a muted green and white coat (left), while males flaunt bright blues, greens and whites.
Courtesy of Elsevier

“It was unusual to find [a species] where the juveniles looked like the males,” said Falk in a statement. “So it was clear something was at play.”

Their study involved setting up taxidermied hummingbirds and monitoring how real ones behaved toward the variously sexed and colored dummies. What they found was that brightly colored female hummingbirds were able to access feeders more frequently, apparently thanks to their imposing plumage. At the same time, the drab female mounts endured a higher degree of assaults from live male hummingbirds.

On the other hand, some female hummingbirds’ unconventional flourish is doing them no favors in the mating scene.

White-necked jacobins
Male white-necked jacobin hummingbirds attacked brightly colored females less often than their conventional counterparts. However, females who paraded bright plumage were also more often snubbed by potential mates.
Courtesy of Elsevier

“If females having male-like plumage is the result of sexual selection, then the males would have been drawn to the male-plumaged females,” Falk explained. “That didn’t happen. The male white-necked jacobins still showed a clear preference for the typically plumed adult females.”

But a girl’s gotta eat.

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