Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 52

How hummingbirds fly through spaces too narrow for their wings

Hummingbirds are natural acrobats, twisting their wings in ways that let them fly backward and upside down, unlike any other bird. New high-speed video now shows how, using a bit of aerial gymnastics, hummingbirds can also slip through gaps narrower than their wingspan.

Most birds can bend their wings at the wrist, pulling arched wings close to their bodies to navigate their way through dense vegetation like branches. But hummingbird wings aren’t as flexible. Because the wings stick straight out from a hummingbird’s body, getting through tight spaces requires some tricky maneuvering.

Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) fly sideways to make it through holes too small for their rigid wings, researchers report in Journal of Experimental Biology. To avoid hitting a hole’s sides, the birds also flutter their wings while flying through a tight space rather than using their full range of motion for each wingbeat. After successfully navigating the obstacle a few times, the birds switch it up, flattening their wings against their bodies and shooting through holes like a bullet.

“This is a new insight into the amazing capacity of hummingbirds,” says Bret Tobalske, a biomechanist at the University of Montana in Missoula who wasn’t involved with the research. Sideways flight to maneuver through gaps is “pretty remarkable” and highlights how unique hummingbirds are among birds, he says.

The findings could help engineers develop aerial vehicles or robots suitable for navigating tight, complicated spaces. Hummingbirds are among nature’s best fliers and are fantastic at remembering their spatial environment, says Bo Cheng, a mechanical engineer at Penn State not involved in the study. But “the state of the art in drones hasn’t really reached the hummingbird-level flight capability yet,” he says. The rapid beat of hummingbird wings — around 40 beats per second for an Anna’s hummingbird — gives the birds precise control over flight, and engineering needs to catch up.

Because hummingbird wings are so rigid, biologist Marc Badger often wondered how the birds dealt with obstacles and tight spaces. While a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, he would watch the tiny birds sip nectar from a feeder. Sometimes individuals would chase one another through the branches of a nearby bush yet emerge unscathed. “And that got me thinking, how in the world are they doing this?”