The Amazing Lives of Hummingbirds: Part 3

Are you ready to learn how hummingbirds can fly backwards?  Would you like to see some awesome pictures of beautiful hummingbirds? Would you like to hear a crazy fact that is actually true?  Let’s take one more peek into the incredible world of hummingbirds!

Flying backwards is difficult.  I tried it once with a set of wings that I made using a lightweight aluminum frame, 200 mockingbird feathers and super glue.  I ran up to the top of a steep hill and jumped backwards while rapidly flapping my makeshift wings.  The end result was me lying on the ground at the bottom of the hill gasping in pain while my friends laughed and made fun of me.  Apparently, human limbs aren’t made for flying.  Hummingbirds, however, seem to be supremely designed for flying forwards and backwards.  In my last post I said I would explain how hummingbirds can fly backwards.  Well, during my research I’ve discovered that only recently have scientists begun to understand some of the mechanisms which allow hummingbirds to fly backwards.  I won’t bore you with the technical details as not everything is even understood yet, but I will mention a few things that seem to play a role in this phenomenon.

Hummingbirds have a unique anatomical setup that allows for quick movements. They can flap their wings at a much higher rate than other birds and their tiny frame makes quick turns and head movements easier.  According to a recent study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology by Nir Sapir and Robert Dudley, when a hummingbird flies backwards, its body posture becomes more upright and the frequency of its wing beats rises.  The scientists expected that the increase in wing usage, combined with the upright posture, would produce more drag and cause the bird to consume more oxygen.  What they found was that hummingbirds actually were as efficient while flying backwards as they are during normal flight!  If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, click here.

Now let’s take a look at some more cool hummingbirds!  The Marvelous Spatuletail is a hummmingbird found in a limited range of forest edges in Peru.  They have just four tail feathers.  The male’s outer tail feathers end in beautiful discs called spatules.  During courtship displays, males will fly around a female while showing off their spatules.  “Hey girl!  Look at me!  I have the biggest and prettiest spatules!  I’m definitely more fit that than wimp hovering beside you!”  Unfortunately, the Marvelous Spatuletail is on the endangered list.  This is primarily due to the loss of habitat and the fact that it has a very limited range.  There have been efforts over the last few years to conserve areas and develop more native plants for the spatuletail.

Marvellous Spatuletail perched on a branch

(Top – picture by Roger Ahlman. Bottom – BBC Nature)

Ready for a picture frenzy of colorful hummingbirds?


(Top – Fiery-throated Hummingbird -> Glenn Bartley, Bottom – Rainbow Starfrontlet ->

(Top – Golden-tailed Sapphire, Bottom – Andean Hillstar)

(Top – Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Bottom – Rufous Hummingbird -> Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

To finish off this blog series on hummingbirds, I’m going to tell you something crazy.  Crazy and true.  A friend and I were once held up at gunpoint by a military policeman with a guard dog while surveying for birds on a naval base in Indiana.  As it turns out, we weren’t in any trouble.  Everything was cleared up after we showed our ids and were checked in with the base.  Security hadn’t received clearance for the license plate on the government vehicle we were driving due to a miscommunciation.  The most exciting part was when the mp told us to stay still and let him know if we needed to scratch ourselves or wipe our faces.  Apparently the dog would have taken us out if we made sudden moves.  Of course, at that exact moment, I felt an itch on the back of my neck.  I just calmly stood still and looked at the dog who seemed friendly but probably would have mauled me if I had done a jumping jack.  Hold on, what’s that?  You were expecting a true story about hummingbirds?  Okay then.  Hummingbirds are so aggressive in defending their territories, that they have been known to take on hawks and eagles!

Hopefully you enjoyed this journey through the world of hummingbirds.  I’ve decided to leave the topic of my next blog post up to you.  Below is a poll with four choices.  Feel free to vote.  You can also feel free to never read my blog again.  Most likely, four people will vote in the poll and each will choose a different answer.  That’s no problem because I am like a hummingbird.  I can fly backwards, eat sweet things and dance for the ladies.  Don’t come near my territory though.


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