The Hummingbird Dive

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

Among the many extraordinary talents of the hummingbird, the male’s aerial dive is the most astounding of all. A courtship dance, the hummingbird dive is happening right now in the northern hemisphere.

 

It is an electrifying display, even to us mere humans.

 

This week in Northern California, I heard or saw it at least a dozen times every day. In colder areas, it probably hasn’t begun yet.

 

If there is a nectar feeder, it often starts while she’s feeding. Here he is (on the right) at our nectar feeder, impressing her with his iridescence.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, female on the left, male on the right, California

 

Once he has her attention, he starts the dance. It usually lasts about 12 seconds.

 

Next, he flies straight up into the sky, and he keeps going higher and higher, until you barely see him.

 

He goes up about 100 feet (30 m).

 

Then he plummets, swoops down right in front of her, in a flash. They’ve been clocked at 50 miles per hour (80 kph).

 

In this photo, below, he is diving downward. You can see his bill pointed down.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird doing a “J” Dive, California

 

If you’re standing there, it looks like he’s going to collide with the ground. I have gasped plenty of times, afraid for the bird’s safety. But hummingbirds are known for their precision flying.

 

And then at the last moment, he flairs his tail, lifts up and sails skyward.

 

Also at this moment, his two outer tail feathers vibrate together making a distinct popping sound. The speed is so great, that the wind vibrates the two feathers together.

 

Often his iridescent gorget (throat) feathers light up, too. And he starts singing his heart out.

 

As if this wasn’t enough–this dive-bombing, glittering, tail-popping maneuver and serenading–he performs the dive again and again and again.

 

In the Anna’s Hummingbird species, this aerial dive is called a “J” dive, for the flight pattern that looks like the letter “J.”

 

Every hummingbird species has a slightly different dive style. The ruby-throated hummingbird, prevalent in the eastern half of the United States, does a “U” shaped dive; so does the broad-tailed hummingbird. See diagram at end.

 

We saw this dazzling male Costa’s Hummingbird in Palm Springs. Although we didn’t witness the courtship dive (it was February), I’ve read their dive is similar except they hurtle off to the side of the female and twist, to direct their sound.

 

Costa’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

The sound effects during this dive also vary among species. Recordings of six aerial dive sounds.ย 

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California.

 

Sometimes in the heart of winter we will have a day or two of uncharacteristically warm weather. In this pseudo spring, the male will perform his impressive dive, thinking it’s breeding time. They are also known to use the dive for territorial purposes.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird “J” Dive, California

 

Many times I have watched the female fly away while he was performing the dive. Consequently, in mid-flight, he aborts the dive. It takes a lot of precious energy to do this dive, and he has decided to conserve.

 

There areย YouTube videos on this, but they don’t really capture the speed, because they have to be done in slow motion to even see the bird. The dive is supersonic fast and nearly impossible to record. Here’s one of the better videos, in slow motion.
YouTube Anna’s Hummingbird Dive by Chris Clark.

 

During this season when hummingbirds are getting together to breed, keep your eyes and ears open for this spectacular performance. It happens fast, so you may have to watch it a few times.

 

Glory and beauty in the world of nature: you have to be ready.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Illustration of the flight pattern and courtship rituals of hummingbirds "Male dives toward female, reaching a top speed of ~40-50 mph" "Male emits tail-generated noise" "Male's gorget becomes visible to female, appears to change color" "Male reaches maximal horizontal speed [towards female]" "Male climbs back up, preparing for another dive in the opposite direction"

U-shaped Broad-tailed Hummingbird Courtship Dive Pattern. Courtesy princeton.edu

82 thoughts on “The Hummingbird Dive

    • Yes, Mike, the hummingbirds can be considered the kings of flight, spectacular little birds, aren’t they? Always a delight to “see” you, my friend, thank you.

  1. Wow! I never knew they did that. Our male hummingbird keeps watch on the nectar feeder from somewhere in the tree canopy, and as soon as a female lands on the feeder, he dives down at full speed to … chase her away.

    • When they’re not in breeding, the male does indeed chase everyone away, including females. But you keep watching, Hien, and when they are all at the feeder together, and the male hasn’t chased the females away, watch for the dive. He goes up so high you may think he has flown away, but just keep watching and he’ll do the dive. Great fun to share the hummingbird tricks, Hien.

    • Yes, keep watching the hummingbirds at the feeder, Michael Stephen, you might get to see the dive. It usually happens at least three times in a row. Thanks for your visit.

  2. Amazing ritual! I am awaiting the return of my annual visitors. My cousin lives in Florida and assures me they are on their way north. We like to imagine her hummingbirds are the same birds who visit me!

    • It is always a sweet treat when the annual avian visitors return. And I really l o v e that you and your more southern cousin share info, and maybe, just maybe, even the same hummingbirds. Great comment, thank you, cj.

  3. Those who know me know that I LOVE hummingbirds. I even have a hummingbird on my website logo. Each year, I anxiously await their return to our backyard feeders. They are such amazing creatures. There is never a dull moment around the feeders, particularly as the summer heats up and they get even more territorial. Love this, Jet!

    • I just popped over to see your logo, and I saw you have a hummingbird photo, too. That’s fun. You’re right, Jill, never a dull moment with the hummingbirds. So many bright and iridescent moments in fact. Glad you enjoyed today’s post, Jill, thank you.

  4. While living in NO CAL I saw both the Anna’s and Allen’s preforming the dive mostly to show who’s turf it was. It is one of the most amazing things to see and hear!

    I need to get a new Hummingbird feeder and put it up here at my new house. I threw out the old one when I moved. I saw only one Hummer last year feeding at my neighbor’s Trumpet vine. The vine isn’t looking good right now. We’re hoping it survived winter so the Hummer will return! The Nectar feeder is my Plan B.

    • Yes, we’re lucky in No. Calif. to have many species of hummingbirds, and then we have the joy of the Anna’s year-round, the most prevalent species. I hope you are treated to hummingbirds at your new house, Deborah. They’ll for sure visit often with a nectar feeder. Many thanks.

  5. Humming birds are great dive bombers. Beautiful photos. Interesting trajectory graph. I’ve seen a couple around here already. We don’t get a large variety of hummingbirds in the valley.

    • I agree, Timothy, the hummingbird dive-bombing is indeed great. It was pretty tricky for Athena to try capturing the dive-bombing, I was pleased with what she was able to get. Glad you liked the post and the photos. Always a pleasure to have you come by, thank you.

      • I find hummingbirds particularly frstrating to photograph. They will hoover in front of me, but they move just out of the view of my lens whenever I point it at them. I think they see their reflections and more out of the way.

      • Yes, they’re really difficult to photograph, Timothy. So speedy, twitchy. And their colors change in the light, so the same bird can be iridescent pink in one shot, and the same spot can be dark black in the next instant. Tricky little guys.

  6. I had no idea hummingbirds would do this. We have the night hawks, whose zooming dives produce spectacular sounds during summer evenings, and they’re as enjoyable a part of the season as the lightning bugs and cicadas. I’ll have to ask my friends with hummingbird feeders whether they’ve seen this behavior.

    I have to confess, when I read your title, the first thing that came to mind was a collection of disreputable hummingbirds sharing drinks in a local dive. Who knows? Maybe some of them do experience their times at the feeder in the same way people enjoy their local bars!

    • I liked hearing about the diving night hawks, Linda. We’re so lucky to have these creatures to enjoy and observe. If you hang out at your friends’ nectar feeders during the day when it is breeding season, it is very possible you’ll get to see the aerial diving. I know you will enjoy it. My warmest thanks for your visit and comment.

  7. I’ve seen them do this in our yard, but I didn’t realize they have different “flight patterns” (U or J). I’ll have to watch more carefully next time. I love hearing their chi-chi-cheee sound as they show off their dive-bombing acrobatics. At some point during the show, they do a short back and forth dance while saying, “Zum-zum-zum-zummm.” Nice post, Jet. I love seeing the hummingbirds around here. Your write-up and photo combo is great, as always.

    • I so enjoyed your comment and visit, Anneli. Clearly the hummingbirds have captured your interest and heart. It sounds like you have the Anna’s species, from the great description: “chi-chi-chee.” Have fun! And many thanks.

  8. well we’re most excited about this post because even tho we have a humming bird feeder up we haven’t watched for this courtship — so we’ll do!!! Thanks so much for the timely info!!!

    • Oh how delighted I am to know you have a nectar feeder up, Bill. And it’s a great thrill to share the magic of the aerial courtship dive with you. I am quite certain it will occur there in your yard. You have to try to remember to look up. The male just vanishes, because it’s so fast, then look up and follow it, if you can.

    • Oh, isn’t it just so magnificent to see the hummingbirds glitter in the sun, Cathy? I hope more glittering jewels come your way. Thank you for your visit and comment, much enjoyed.

  9. What a performance! Had to laugh that sometimes the female will fly away. All that showboating, and she shrugs and wanders off…
    We will look out for this display next time weโ€™re in hummingbird territory and the time is right.
    Thanks for sharing these colourful aerial acrobats!

    • Whenever the female hummingbird flies off and the male aborts the dive, I say, sometimes even outloud, “Hey, what about me?” Or I’ve been known to whisper, when I see no female hummingbird anywhere appreciating his dive, “It wasn’t lost on me.” Great fun to share the hummingbirds with you, PC, thanks so much for your visit. Always a joy.

  10. The one thing I miss about California was seeing all the hummingbirds. That place had its share of stresses for me but you can’t deny it’s beauty. Living here in NJ in the Pine Barren I see so many different birds as well. I never thought I’d fall in love with wild birds like I have. Stunning!

    • Hi Skelly, I’m glad you stopped by and commented. Life in Calif. does have its stresses, it’s true, but the hummingbirds do indeed help with all of that. I have been to the pine barrens of NJ and it is beautiful there. And you do have amazing birds migrating up and down the eastern seaboard. Cape May is a joyful place to hang out with so many kinds of birds, and experienced birders too. I’m glad you’re enjoying the birds. Thank you.

  11. Hummer males are so gorgeous and those courtship dives are something to see. Here in the east, we have ruby-throated, with the U dives with all that buzzing and squeaking. Often when working in the garden, they cruise by me so fast, they remind me of the cartoon Roadrunner, ‘beep-beep!’ ๐Ÿ™‚

    • They sure do zoom, don’t they, Eliza? We all do our best to stay out of their way. I’m happy you have had the joy of the hummingbird dance and dives in your garden. Many thanks.

    • Thanks, GP, your wonderful comment just made my day, too. This is a good time to give refuge to each other. I’m heading over your way right now, for what I get out of your posts is to keep my sense of honor and conviction for this country. Many thanks, my friend.

  12. Pingback: The Hummingbird Dive โ€” Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  13. What beauties! I’ve seen them dive like this before and I’ve also had them hover right above my head and right in front of my face while sitting on the cabin porch in Wyoming. The males are quite territorial and will chase each other off at terrific speeds. If you’re wearing something red or there’s something red nearby, you have a good chance of an inquisitive bird buzzing over to check it or you out. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Happy, healthy weekend, Jet.

    janet

    • They do really get “in your face” if you’re wearing red. It’s a little shocking at first, but I just say, “hello” and then they move on. Great to hear you are familiar with the hummingbird dive, Janet. Such joy these little birds bring to us. Always fun to have you stop by, thank you.

    • That’s an excellent way to describe the hummingbird speed, Jan–so fast you think it’s a bee. If you watch the male this week, you will no doubt see him doing the dive. Many thanks for your visit, always appreciated.

  14. I have seen the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird doing the “U” dive, many times through the years and I hope to see it again this year, I have their nectar feeder for more than 2 weeks already. Great post, my friend. Take care. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • It’s great that you are set up and ready for your ruby-throated friends, HJ. Sounds like a party, and one that’s allowed! Thanks for stopping by, HJ, with your kind message and I wish you and your family health and ease during these times.

  15. Once again I appreciate the great information you provide. Lately I’ve had an Anna’s male doing his dive over my head. At first I couldn’t identify that strange, astonishingly loud pop he does at the bottom of the dive. Luckily Eric informed me, but it’s still difficult to watch because he dives at such an incredible speed.
    Now I need to watch the slow-mo video. They are incredible little gems… and all that energy expended for the lady love ๐Ÿ’•!

    • I love knowing the Anna’s male is diving up north now, Gunta. And I had to chuckle that he’s diving over your head. It is a strange sound and yes, I would use the word “astonishing” for the volume too. It can be unnerving if you don’t know what it is because it seemingly comes out of nowhere. And it’s such an odd sound, not anything like bird song or bird calls. This week I asked Athena to try to take some photos of the J dive for the post, and she looked at me like I was asking the impossible, which I was. Out in the backyard she kept her camera aimed at the sky, while my task was to watch the bird diving and announce when he was about to come back up. Cheers to you and Eric, Gunta, stay safe, my friends, and have fun enjoying the miracles of the back yard.

  16. Thatโ€™s something I never knew. When I was younger, and working outdoors all the time, we used to have these weird birds that did something similar. I think they were nightjars, but there were so many local names for them Iโ€™m not entirely sure. They would dive like that and you could hear the vibrations for quite a distance. I always assumed they were catching insects, but it could have been a courtship display.

    • There’s always something going on in the animal world that is a mystery. I think that’s what we both like about it, Craig. I’m glad I could share the hummingbird dives with you, and spark your thoughts about the nightjars. I liked hearing about your nightjar experiences. And as always, I’m happy to “see” you, thank you for stopping by.

      • Their feathers really vibrate and itโ€™s kind of a unique thing in the desert. We had hummingbirds, too, but I never noticed that about them. Iโ€™ll keep my eyes open from now on.

      • Vibrating feathers is a fascinating phenomenon. I paid more attention to the mourning dove takeoffs yesterday, their wing feather vibrations, having just written about the hummingbirds. Now I’ll tune in more to the nightjars. Thank you Craig.

  17. Jet you are a wealth of bird education! That was a very informant post and I too have learnt some new things about Hummers, thank you! I’ll be watching for the dives now!

    • It is such a pleasure to share the wealth of bird information, John, especially with kind and appreciative folks like you. Thanks so much for your interest and kind words. Have fun watching for the hummingbird dives.

  18. Amazing and energetic courtship ritual for such tiny male birds, I love this! Thank you for sharing Chris Clark’s video, I have never seen a dive before by a hummer, it was incredible to see. I’m not near any hummers at the present, but I’ll be sure to watch for these dives when we’re back home very soon in the mid-Atlantic where breeding season should be underway. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I am delighted you enjoyed the hummingbird dive post, Donna. It will be great when you see a courtship dive, perhaps soon when you return home. But you know hummers…stay out of the way, they can go like the dickens. Many thanks and smiles to you.

    • I’m happy I could introduce you to the hummingbird courtship dives, Frank. Athena was a real trooper trying to photograph this lightning-speed aerial dive-bombing. Always a true joy to “see” you, thanks for stopping by.

  19. Fascinating! So much energy and drama for such a teeny little bird! Loved hearing all the different sounds they make, too. Thank you!

    • I agree, Nan, it is quite amazing what this little tiny bird can generate. I’m happy you enjoyed the post, and am grateful, as always, for your continued interest and frequent visits.

  20. You just explained something I have been watching for years (San Diego/Goodyear, AZ/now LA) as we have always had humming bird feeders….love them. I have seen that dive many times and thought “pull up…pull up” . Now I know what I was witnessing! Thanks for that! Love humming birds and in AZ we had the feeder by a fountain…they loved both and I had a few times when I truly thought they were going to land on me or my chair as they became so familiar and comfortable with us sitting close to feeder…

    • I am so very glad I could clarify what that hummingbird maneuver is that you were witnessing, Kirt. And you described the very thing I often think, too: “Pull up…pull up.” Because he is going so fast and headed straight for the ground. Your hummingbird stations sound like heaven for these beautiful gems, and very fun to be near as a human, too. Always a delight, my friend, thank you.

  21. Love how you described the hummingbird’s aerial dive as ‘a courtship dance’. So elegantly phrased. They really do dive with precision – probably part of what these species does best. Amazing photos as usual by Athena. Hope you are doing well ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Great fun to receive your visits today, Mabel, thanks for stopping by. Thank you for your kind comments about the description I wrote, and the hummingbird photos. I am doing well, and glad to see you are too. Take good care.

  22. Iโ€™m so excited because we had our first sighting on Sunday. I think it may have been the scout because heโ€™s only come every morning around 615. Canโ€™t wait for him to bring everybody else around and then the breeding dance/flight will begin! Again, this blog post is just fascinating.

    • It is so very exciting when the first of a species comes in, with hummingbirds it is almost always the male. I’m so happy you know his schedule and have this beauty to watch, Pam. My pleasure sharing a few of the specifics of the dance. Sending hummingbird magic your way….

  23. I’m thinking the male hummingbird should be advised to wear helmets. Just in case. I listened to the various sounds mad during the dive and my guess is that all translate to something not suitable for little hummingbird ears.

    • Yes, a helmet on a male hummingbird might not be a bad idea, they’re so fast and daring in their flights. It would probably mess up their aerodynamic abilities, though, ha ha. Great to have you stop by, thank you, Sue.

  24. Yet another great one! They are just fascinating to watch. When we first bought our house, we were given a hummingbird feeder and put it right off our deck. My husband swore they were trying to kill him so we had to move the feeder further into the yard.

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