Hummingbirds are aerial acrobatics that dart, swoop, flit and fly at super fast speeds, their wings flapping up to 80 times per second and their heart racing at 1,200 beats per minute. When feeding, they zip from flower to flower, sipping sugary nectar and dashing off again. This high-energy lifestyle requires lots of calories, which means they need to drink their weight in nectar every day to survive.
Despite the amount of food they consume, they weigh less than a nickel. How then do they stay upright in mid-air when wind wallops their tiny bodies and rain pelts their nimble wings? That’s exactly the question biology professor Robert Dudley and post-doctoral researcher Victor M. Ortega from the University of California-Berkeley asked in 2010.
To figure it out, Dudley and Ortega placed the hummingbirds in a wind tunnel at the UC Berkeley Animal Flight Laboratory. In this controlled environment, the researchers cranked the wind speed to three, six and nine meters per second (7-20 miles per hour). Since hummingbirds can flap their wings 50-80 times per second, high-speed cameras captured their manic wing beats.
A hummingbird drinking from an artificial flower. Screen capture from the KQED Deep Look Video.
The turbulence proved no problem for these aerialists, shifting their bodies to adapt to the changing air currents. By beating their wings backwards and forwards (instead of up and down) in a figure-eight movement, they managed to keep themselves stable; their tails acted like a rudder to keep steady when poking their tiny tongues inside an artificial flower.
However, the tough times were not over for these fast little birds. Next, the researchers simulated a rainfall too see how they would respond. Undeterred, the hummingbirds shook the water from their bodies and continued imbibing their drink of choice. “They shake their bodies like dogs while still flying,” said Ortega to KQED, “but they don’t lose control.”
To learn more, watch a Deep Look video by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios below:
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