: Aerial Acrobats


In flight, no other bird comes close to a hummingbird. It dives and darts, hovers, flies forward and backward, and even sideways and upside down. When it hovers, its wings rotate in a figure-eight pattern. But you can’t see this because the wings move so fast it’s just a blur.

Male and female hummingbirds often perform grand “courtship flights.” The patterns of these flights vary from one species to another. Can you follow the courtship flight of the broad-tailed hummingbirds shown here?

Some hummingbirds are amazing travelers. The tiny rufous hummingbird is no bigger than your thumb, but each year it leaves its nesting grounds in Alaska to winter in the southern United States and southern Mexico. It travels a longer migration route than any other hummingbird. It flies over stormy oceans and steep coastal mountains. In the spring, it returns to Alaska by the same route.

A hummingbird can fly circles around any other bird, so it has no fear of predators. To protect their nests, these feisty little birds will even attack eagles!

To take off, hummingbirds don’t have to push with their feet the way other birds do. They just flap their wings and off they go. They can reach full speed almost immediately.

The male broad-tailed hummingbird begins his courtship flight by making a giant “U” in the sky 1. On his way, he pauses occasionally 2 to see if the female is watching him from her perch. At the peak of his flight 3, he stops again, then dives toward the female 4. From a full-speed dive, he can stop instantly, right in front of her. Then she may join him in a wild game of chase 5.

Hummingbirds fly like little helicopters. They can hover, move from side to side, go straight up, straight down, and even backwards. They do all this by rotating each wing in a circle, which is similar to the way a helicopter flies.

When a hummingbird pushes air one way, it drives the bird the other way. For example, when a hummingbird rises straight up into the air, its wings are moving in a flat circle. This pushes the air down, and forces the bird up.

To fly forward, the hummingbird just tilts its wings until they push the air backward.

It can even rotate its wing behind its back. This pushes the air forward, which allows the hummingbird to fly backward.

The bird pictured at left is hovering in midair. Its wing is turned upside down because it is moving in a figure-eight pattern.

A hummingbird wing has 10 primary feathers, which are extremely long and narrow. When the wings flap, these feathers vibrate. That’s what makes the humming sound that gives hummingbirds their name.