Hummingbirds look and learn

A study provides evidence that male hummingbirds learn both songs and visual displays by listening to and watching others in their community.

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Long-billed hermit hummingbird in flight in the lowlands of Costa Rica

Credit: Christopher Jimenez Nature Photo/Getty

Like humans, hummingbirds are vocal learners: they can adapt their vocalizations by listening to others. Vocal learning might have evolved from the ability to learn movements from others. If this is true, vocal learners should also be able to learn movements by watching one another. Writing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Araya-Salas et al. provide evidence for social learning of complex movements in long-billed hermit hummingbirds (Phaethornis longirostris; M. Araya-Salas et al. Proc. R. Soc. B 286, 20190666; 2019).

Male hummingbirds sing and perform elaborate visual displays to attract mates and defend their territory. The authors found that each community of hummingbirds has its own variants of the songs and displays, indicating social learning of both. These observations support the theory that vocal learning evolved from general motor learning.

Nature 570, 42 (2019)

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