How Do Hummingbirds Fly?

January 7, 2022 // 7 minute read

Articles » Hummingbird Flying

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How Do Hummingbirds Fly?

If you’ve been attracting hummingbirds in your backyard, you’ve undoubtedly been amazed by their flying skills. 

These birds are the only ones that can fly backward and sideways, hover, and even fly in the rain. But have you ever wondered how these birds fly? What makes their flying so different from other birds that they’re the only ones who can make these possible? 

That’s precisely what we’ll tackle in this article. 

We’ll discuss:

  • Hummingbird physiology
  • How hummingbirds fly
  • Interesting facts about hummingbirds flying
  • FAQs

So, if you’re curious about this as we were, read on… 

Hummingbird Flight Behavior

Hummingbirds are incredibly aerobic birds. As mentioned above, they’re the only birds that can hover, fly backward, and even perch upside down. 

Another thing you’ll notice about hummingbirds is that they’re incredibly fast-moving. They can reach maximum velocity even after leaving their perching area and won’t even need to be pushed off by their feet. And when returning to perch, they can also stop instantly. 

You should also know that hummingbirds are long-distance migrants, which means that despite beating their wings so fast throughout those long distances, they still have incredible endurance. 

So, what allows hummingbirds to do these feats? Let’s start by discussing the birds’ physiology first. 

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Hummingbird Physiology

It’s common knowledge that hummingbirds are the tiniest birds in the avian kingdom. And to adapt to a world significantly bigger than they are, their bodies are built differently from other species. 

Hummingbird Bones

Hummingbirds showcase hollow bones, fused vertebrae, and fused pelvic bones. The lack of other skeletal parts and muscles allows the birds to weigh a lot lighter while maintaining enough support for their internal organs. 

You’ll also notice that they have longer and strong bones in the finger portion of their wing, as this helps assist them with their flying movements. 

Hummingbird Muscles

You’ll find hummingbirds having larger chest muscles than the rest of their body, making up 25% of the bird’s body weight. It is said that this makes it possible for the birds to move their wings fast and endure hyper-flying beats for long hours. 

Hummingbird Feet

Another thing you’ll notice is that hummingbirds have significantly smaller feet. And this is mainly because their feet don’t have a lot of use for them. Hummingbirds tend just to hover all the time (sometimes perching and scooting sideways), so having smaller feet makes it easier for them to lift and drop them. 

Hummingbird Heart

As mentioned above, hummingbirds do lots of flying. And most of the time, they just let their wings beat rapidly, and for small birds, this feat won’t be possible without their enlarged heart. 

Yep, that’s right. The hummingbird’s heart is probably larger than a typical small bird. But it’s the one responsible for pumping enough oxygen to support the muscles and the speed of its wings.

How Hummingbirds Fly

Now that we know about the hummingbird’s build let’s discuss the main thing this article should talk about: How do hummingbirds fly? 

Unlike other bird species who flap their wings to lift themselves off the ground, hummingbirds move their wings in a forward to the backward manner, forming a figure 8 in the air. Because of this technique, hummingbirds are able to move in all directions and even hover. 

A simple twist can immediately change the bird’s angle, allowing hummingbirds to change direction quickly. Check out a slow-motion video of a hummingbird below so you can see for yourself: 

This kind of wing movement is not very common for birds. It is, however, most closely associated with buzzing insects, like dragonflies. The only difference is that, because hummingbirds are larger, they also have the ability to control the air more violently. 

Interesting Facts About Hummingbird Flying

  • The name hummingbird came from their wings humming noise when beating so fast.  
  • Hummingbirds are the only bird species that can fly backward. 
  • The birds can’t walk or hop, and their little feet are mainly used for perching. 
  • The average heart rate of hummingbirds is more than 1,200 beats per minute. This provides them with enough oxygen in their body to keep up with their flying mechanism. 
  • The rufous hummingbird is known to have the longest migration of any hummingbird species, flying more than 3,000 miles from its nesting site. 
  • Hummingbirds’ maximum forward flight speed is 30 miles per hour and reaches 60 miles per hour when diving. 
  • The hummingbird’s wings beat between 50-200 flaps per second, changing depending on their flight’s direction, the purpose of their flight, and air conditions. 
  • A hummingbird can fly 500 miles straight without stopping all on its own. 
  • When a hummingbird is at rest, it can take an average of 250 breaths per minute. 

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FAQs

How fast do hummingbirds fly? 

We can’t deny that hummingbirds are fast fliers. Often, when we see them hovering while feeding on flowers, their wings appear blurry due to the speed. But depending on the species, hummingbird wing beats vary a lot. 

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird: 50 wingbeats per second
  • Rufous hummingbird: 52-62 wingbeats per second
  • Giant hummingbird: 12 wingbeats per second
  • Bee hummingbird: 80 wingbeats per second

In other words, these birds can beat their wings by 10-80 beats or even more in one second. 

But of course, hummingbirds are not only fast in terms of wingbeats. They can also fly fast, covering 20-30 miles of distance in one hour. 

What is the fastest hummingbird? 

Anna’s hummingbird is known to be the fastest hummingbird species. But, they’re not only the quickest hummingbird because they’re also the fastest bird in the world if we’re talking about the birds’ size. 

These birds reach 50 miles per hour, covering around 385 body lengths in just one second. This is even faster than a flying jet that flies 1,320 mph and only covers 39 body lengths per second. 

Are hummingbirds the only birds that fly backward? 

No, hummingbirds are not the only bird that can fly backward. They are, however, the only birds that can do it for long periods. 

Other birds like warblers and herons can also fly backward when they’re defensive, but this is usually for just a short period. 

How long does it take for a baby hummingbird to fly? 

Baby hummingbirds are tiny and can’t fly. It would usually take a month after hatching to break out of their nest finally. The most amazing part is that these baby birds start migrating, too. 

Can hummingbirds fly in the rain? 

Yes, hummingbirds can fly in the rain. 

Aside from the fact that hummingbird feathers can repel water, they also developed a technique to help keep them from getting wet. This includes shaking their heads rapidly to quickly dry themselves while flying. They also change the angle of their body so they can easily make it through bigger raindrops. 

How long can hummingbirds fly? 

Hummingbirds are long-distance migratory birds and can travel 1,200 miles long. And while other birds can do this with companions, hummingbirds do this alone. 

They can also travel 500 miles straight, non-stop, which takes around 18-22 hours to complete. 

Final Thoughts On How Hummingbirds Fly

If we rank birds based on their flying abilities, hummingbirds will top our list. 

They are incredibly acrobatic and are the only birds with the ability to fly sideways, backward, and hover. Their need to survive allowed them to develop techniques that would enable them to fly nonstop and be able to consume more food their tiny bodies need. 

There are still many things to know about the hummingbirds’ flying abilities, and there is definitely a lot more research that needs to be done. 

Scientists have already created 3D models of the birds, x-ray visuals, and even cameras to picture their movement. But there are still many mysteries that need to be discovered, and that’s what we should wait for. 

Hummingbird Flying
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