The Curious Case of the Anna’s Hummingbird’s Gorget

While this may seem like any other hummingbird, it is actually a fascinating sight! This is an Anna’s Hummingbird, one of the largest hummingbirds in the United States, and the largest on the West Coast.

I often spend time in my backyard, looking for birds, and waiting for them to get into the perfect photographing position. In the 2020 Summer, I saw many hummingbirds at our feeders, in trees, and at plants. This was one that I spotted perched on one of our redwood trees.

Notice the little red patch, or gorget, on the hummingbird’s neck! It confused me for a while – I thought it might be a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, but those are incredibly rare in California. It did not strike me as being an Anna’s Hummingbird, because all of the male Anna’s Hummingbirds that I have seen have expansive, brilliant magenta gorgets, but this one was small and dark red. It did not seem likely to be a female, as female Anna’s Hummingbirds have nothing on their throats.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Fremont, CA) – August 2020

I recognized this hummingbird as an Anna’s Hummingbird – even though it was so far away, the pink gorget hit me in the eye immediately. Unlike the small, reddish gorget in the first photo – this one is so bright and big that it can be seen a mile away.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Fremont, CA) – September 2020

I photographed this female Anna’s Hummingbird at the hummingbird feeder in my backyard. It is slightly harder to identify immediately – after all, it doesn’t have the gorget which makes it so striking. However, if you compare the rest of its body to the other two pictures, it is almost the same. Male hummingbirds often use their gorgets to attract females. 

When I noticed these differences, I wondered – how can the same species of hummingbird look so different from different angles?

The answer lies in the way the hummingbird’s throat is structured. All birds have melanosomes, which are cells that produce the pigment in the bird’s feathers. Hummingbirds’ melanosomes are a bit different though – they are shaped as thin shells, almost like soap bubbles. Think of a soap bubble – when you look at it from different angles, it produces different colors! A hummingbird’s throat is the same. 

These melanosomes are then organized in a mosaic pattern, on the hummingbird’s darker-colored throat. Without sunlight, the gorget appears to be more dull by contrast – not that different from other birds’ feathers. But as soon as light hits the hummingbird’s throat, it suddenly explodes with iridescent color! Now, when you look at the hummingbird, its color will appear different based on the angle you approach it from.

What could the purpose of this complex coloring be? Does it help hummingbirds with courtship? To avoid predators? There are many ways that this unique coloring could benefit hummingbirds.  Imagine what we could do with this knowledge! With hummingbirds’ ability to release so many colors at once, we could develop more advanced lenses, better visual technology – the possibilities are endless! The complexity and beauty of hummingbirds’ colors is truly amazing.



Published by kabirsamsi

High School Senior in Fremont, CA. I enjoy music, programming and ornithology. My other hobbies include biking and watching soccer and cricket. Check out my birding blog, KBirdVentures! (link below) to see my photos and read up on different news in the avian world.

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