Hummingbird may get promoted

Not just a subspecies: A flashy, squeaky bird should become its own species, ornithologists argue


ON ITS OWN  The Inaguan lyretail, a kind of bee hummingbird demoted to subspecies decades ago, might be reinstated as a species in its own right.

Anand Varma/

A flashy little hummingbird in the Bahamas could get upgraded to full species status, thanks to research that began with noise-making tail feathers.

The Inaguan lyretail, one of what are called bee hummingbirds because of their small size, was demoted to a subspecies in 1945. Its official name, Calliphlox evelynae lyrura, honored the (somewhat) lyrelike curve and length of the far left and right feathers in its tail.

In 2008, the feathers caught the interest of Christopher J. Clark of the University of California, Riverside, who has analyzed how male hummingbirds make their tails whine and whir as they flirtatiously dive-bomb females. The lyretail’s feathers give a higher-pitched sound than the feathers of the other subspecies.

More distinctive than the tail sounds are such features as the lyretail’s iridescent forehead and a tendency almost to whisper its distinctive songs, which sound like wet, squeaking shoes. Also, the birds’ DNA suggests the lyretail set out on its own evolutionary path some 690,000 years ago, Clark and colleagues report in the January 2015 The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

The commission standardizing bird species names is considering the researchers’ proposal to boost the lyretail’s status.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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