Link #140: Hummingbirds Can Fly Backwards!

Hummingbirds Can Fly Backwards


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Link #140: Hummingbirds Can Fly Backwards!

Hummingbird Flight
Image credit: jeffreyw/CC BY 2.0

In our last post, we explained that NASA chose to drive Mars rover Curiosity backwards so as to reduce wear and tear on its wheels. Moving backwards is something humans do all the time as it makes us more versatile and able to deal with different situations.

However, moving backwards is something that no one will ever associate with birds. It would be a right decision too except for hummingbirds. That’s right hummingbirds can fly backwards! In fact, they’re the only birds in the world that can do this.

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Can Hummingbirds Fly Backwards?

Hummingbird Backward Flight
Image credit: jeffreyw/CC BY 2.0

Hummingbirds are one of the most agile and versatile flyers on the planet. They can do virtually everything that you can think of for a flyer to do. All birds can fly forward so hummingbirds can too.

However, in addition to flying forward, hummingbirds can fly backward, sideward, and even upside down when required. As if this wasn’t enough, hummingbirds can hover in mid-air without moving a millimetre in any direction.

How Can Hummingbirds Fly Backwards?

Wing Muscles
Wing Muscles. Image credit: L. Shyamal/CC BY-SA 2.5

Hummingbirds possess such incredible flying capabilities because of a wide variety of reasons. First and foremost, a large percentage of a hummingbird’s body consists of flight muscles. In fact, they’re like flight muscles with feathers tacked on.

Around 30 percent of a hummingbird’s body is pure flight muscle. They not only have strong flight muscles for pulling their wings down but also strong flight muscles to pull them up and move them sideways. This contrasts with all other birds which only have strong muscles for pulling wings down.

These strong flight muscles help a hummingbird achieve many great feats. For instance, hummingbirds can beat their wings the fastest in the bird kingdom at rates nearing 200 beats per second.

They get their agility in air from being able to move their wings in various directions. A hummingbird can rotate its wings in a complete circle. It is this agility that allows them to fly backwards. While they’re hovering, hummingbirds move their wings in a figure eight which means that they move them forward and backwards in quick succession.

Hummingbirds’ Colours Flash On and Off!

If you’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, then you may have noticed that hummingbirds are notorious for being visible one moment and disappearing the next moment. There’s a reason why they can do this and it is the fact that they broadcast colour.

Usually, colours become evident on the basis of the pigmentation of the object. However, this isn’t the case with hummingbirds because they get their colour from a process known as iridescence.

Iridescence is the ability of an object to change colour on the basis of the angle and the type of light falling on it. The most common example of iridescence is bubbles. Similar to bubbles, a hummingbird’s feathers are iridescent which allows it to change colour at the drop of a hat and look so beautiful.

Hummingbirds also use their iridescence for a much more practical purpose than exhibiting beauty. They use iridescence to hide from predators. Furthermore, male hummingbirds use iridescence to attract the opposite sex for mating.

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