Hummingbirds are one of evolution’s more magical feats. They’re among the planet’s fastest creatures, able to fly faster than 60 miles per hour (98 kilometers per hour).
Even when they slow down for a nectar fix, they’re still going really, really fast. As they position themselves over a flower, hummingbirds flap their wings up to 80 times per second—faster than the naked eye can register. They’re the only bird able to fly backwards and sideways, the tiny avian equivalent of a helicopter.
What’s more amazing is that even in a windstorm, hummingbirds stay cooly aloft while siphoning up nectar. To understand exactly how they pull this off, scientists at University of California-Berkeley’s Animal Flight Laboratory trained local Bay Area hummingbirds to feed on an artificial flower, put that fake flower in a wind tunnel, set up high-speed cameras, and cranked up the wind to up to 20 miles per hour. As KQED Science reports in its show Deep Look, here’s what the researchers discovered (the wind tunnel footage starts at 2:00):
What the footage reveals is that when they hit turbulence, hummingbirds wriggle their teeny bodies to brace against the air flow, beating their wings to maintain height, and using their fanned-out tails like a rudder for stability.
The research team then stepped up the challenge. Given that the little birds weigh less than a nickel, wet wings could be quite a burden. So this time, the researchers simulated rain.
The waterlogged hummingbird, they discovered, still fed. Clearly it didn’t dig the wet, though. When it was done eating, it reversed its wing direction, propelled itself backwards, and violently shook off the water the way a wet dog might (see 2:16 in the video above). Yet the hummingbird did that all while hovering in mid-air.
All that flapping, twisting and shaking requires a lot of energy. With the highest metabolism of the planet’s warm-blooded creatures, they basically have to eat their own body weight in nectar every single day. As KQED Science explains, a 150-pound human with a hummingbird’s metabolism would have to down 300 hamburgers a day worth of calories.
This also means that hummingbirds feed on a heck of a lot of flowers, and pollinate them in the process. So splendidly efficient are these tiny pollinators that more than 8,000 plants have evolved to reproduce courtesy of hummingbird services.