The Hummincopter


Hummingbird obtaining nectar from a flower

We as humans have always marveled at the sight of birds and insects soaring through the air. But eventually we achieved flight with airplanes and even hovering with helicopters. One comes to think, do birds marvel at the wonder of the hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds are quite a special species of birds. Like many other birds, hummingbirds can fly in the air, however, they have an ability that all other birds do not. Hummingbirds have the ability to hover in mid air for prolonged periods of time.

Why do hummingbirds need to hover? They use their hovering ability to obtain nectar from flowers. As shown in the picture to the left, hummingbirds hover over or in front of a flower and then use their specialized bills to suck out nectar from the flowers. However, hummingbirds expend a huge amount of energy in hovering; they have to eat more food than the weight of their bodies to sustain life.

But how do hummingbirds manage to hover? A hummingbird’s wings are very unique. The joints of the elbow and shoulder of the wings are very close to the body of the hummingbird. What this allows is for the hummingbird to be extremely flexible near its shoulder. To use this ability, the Hummingbird flap their wings in a horizontal eight figure at an astounding rate of 15-80 times per second. What is even more amazing about the wings of the hummingbirds is that the upstroke of the wings produce lift as well. The downstroke accounts for about seventy five percent of the weight of the bird while the upstroke accounts for about twenty five percent of the body weight. What is so special about this is that hummingbirds are quite similar to insects. When insects flap their wings, the upstroke and downstroke account for fifty percent of the insects weight. For regular birds, the downstroke accoutns for one hundred percent of the body weight.

Hoewever, hummingbirds have another trick up their small furry bodies. Recent studies have shown that hummingbirds have an enlarged part of their brain specialized for helping a hummingbird stabilize while hovering in mid air. This enlarged nuclei, which helps birds detect moving objects, is about two to five times larger in hummingbirds than in other birds. They have a certain reflex called the optokinetic response. This response minimizes the speed at which objects will be traveling across the bird’s retina, and essentially stabilizes a hummingbird’s eyesight. This allows them to accurately put their bill into a flower to eat.

Here’s a slow motion video to show how amazing the hummingbird is:

Works Cited:

One Comment

Lorena Barba posted on September 28, 2012 at 9:39 am

The fact that they stand somewhere in between birds and insects with respect to how much of their weight is supported by the upstroke is really interesting.

- birds support 100% of their weight in the downstroke
- hummingbirds support 75% in the downstroke and 25% with the upstroke
- insects support 50%-50% in the downstroke & upstroke.

Check out the AeroVironment NanoHummingbird:

The PBS documentary on the hummingbird is worth watching!