Seeing a hummingbird flying in your garden can sometimes seem like an otherworldly experience. That's because hummingbirds are the only birds worldwide that fly at the deftly speed that they do.
Hummingbirds are efficient pollinators that love to drink the nectar of brightly colored and red tubular flowers – in exchange providing the needed propagation the the tubular plant world.
Hummingbirds are part of the Trochilidae family, which comprises over 360 species of birds. These hummingbirds dwell and migrate through the entire continent of the americas which include parts of Canada, North America, and South America. And that is no small feat.
You can find these tiny birds in various locations and habitats, including in forest, mountainous, tropical, and arid desert environments. With their flying abilities, they can travel for long distances and are considered migratory birds for the most part.
Therefore, if you love hummingbirds, you must understand their most important characteristic – flying. Researchers have tested hummingbirds’ flight capabilities by placing them in wind tunnels and observing the mechanism from up close.
Here’s the hummingbird flying skills you should know about!
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Hummingbird flights facts
Hummingbirds are great acrobats: this bird flies backward, hovers mid-air, and goes up and down (and in any direction). And it does so at the incredibly high speed of 30mph. A hummingbird’s wings are very impressive, just watch them in slow-motion.
It is estimated that a hummingbirds’s wing beats reach a whooping speed of 50 beats per second (at least). The bee hummingbird can even get to 80 beats per second. Hummingbirds can fly both at high and low altitudes.
They typically fly high when they migrate. But otherwise, they prefer to stay at tree level, as that is where their food source is. Hummingbirds also have a good memory and will know where every flower they have visited is, thus helping reduce the cost of energy spent flying in search of food.
How do hummingbirds fly?
Hummingbird fly predominantly for survival as their food sources are insects and out-of-reach flowers. When they’re mid-air, hummingbirds move their wings backward and forward so that the air is pushed down (not backward). Hummingbirds do both upstrokes and downstrokes and can easily change flying direction when necessary.
Wing movements are hard to see unless you watch a video of a hummingbird in slow-motion: you can see that when a hummingbird hovers, the hummingbird’s wings form a figure in the shape of the number 8.
Hummingbirds fly during their mating rituals where they will perform courtship dives. Male hummingbirds will dive head-on to impress the females in hopes that the female will want to mate. Their wings beat even faster than usual in these dives and can reach 200 beats per second. Because hummingbirds travel so much, they consume a lot of calories.
Hummingbirds are excellent foragers who have to eat multiple meals a day. Between flying routes, hummingbirds forage for nectar, small insects, and water. Before embarking on their migrations, hummingbirds will usually make an effort to gain extra weight.
Because hummingbirds spend a lot of energy flying about 20% of the time, they actually sit still to conserve energy perched on a branch as well. At night, hummingbirds go in to a state of torpor (which slows down their metabolic system – heart-rate, breathing, body temperature and so on). If you see a hummingbird standing still, wait half an hour and you will see it regain its energy again.
Hummingbird physiology for perfect flight
This section will highlight a few physical adaptations that ensure perfect maneuverability for the hummingbird. The most important ones that make a difference are:
- They have a general small body
- A hummingbird’s joints are rigid compared to other birds.
- Hummingbird wings have strong bones in them
- Their small and short feet are tucked under the wings; the fact that they are so small (and hidden) helps them be more aerodynamic.
- Their pectoral muscles represent about 30% of their body weight
- Hummingbirds have hollow bones
- These tiny birds have large hearts that support their racy heart-rates – a hummingbird’s heart is a big organ. Thus it’s able to sustain a lot of wing beats. Many wing beats equal more capacity to endure flying over long distances.
Flight capabilities by bird species
- The fastest species of hummingbird is Anna’s hummingbird.
- The Rufous Hummingbird flies the longest distance of any hummingbird on the planet – traveling about 4000 miles from Alaska to Mexico (and back).
- The Ruby-throated hummingbird flies 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico without ever taking a break. It seems that these North American hummingbirds are not only fast, but their flight skills also show a lot of endurance.
How can you help hummingbirds?
If you want to see up-close sightings of this beautiful jewel with outstanding flying capabilities, then make sure your garden is the perfect safe haven for it. Placing many hummingbird feeders at a significant distance from each other is just good practice if you want to keep them around.
That way, you can start birdwatching them and analyzing their flying patterns. Perches help hummingbirds take a break from their long travels and ensure they can have a comfortable place to rest. All that moving around also requires some rest – albeit not much for the active hummingbird.
So if you see a flying hummingbird in your garden, take the time to admire it and share it with the world! And if you want to see how their brilliant wings work, pick up your camera, film them, and then put them in slow-motion.
Watching a hummingbird in slow motion is fascinating because you can see EXACTLY how they move their wings: as we mentioned, their wings form a figure eight shape in the air around them when they hover.