Can Hummingbirds Fly Backwards?


From time immemorial birds have fascinated human beings. The fact that they are capable of flight has left generations across the globe awestruck. And there is nothing more spectacular than the opportunity to observe hummingbird flight patterns. Depending on its size it can beat its wings between eight to 200 times a second.

Hummingbird flight patterns fascinate ornithologists, scientists and researchers alike. The fact that the smallest of birds is capable of changing its in flight direction, diving, and even flying backwards, is incredible. Its maneuverability, speed and resilience make this tiny bird of great interest to bird enthusiasts as well as the common man.

Do Hummingbirds Fly Backwards?

Hummingbird flight patterns reveal that it can fly forward, sideways, and even backwards. This type of flight is usually observed when the birds retreat from one flower in order to move to another. Such a midair acrobatic maneuver is not seen in any other bird. The hummingbird can move backward, forward, from side to side and they can hover in place.

What makes this bird’s flight special is that unlike other bird species, its wings stroke backward and forward. In contrast, 99% of birds move their wings in an upward and downward motion. The hummingbird moves its wings at about one hundred and eighty degrees at the shoulders. The tips of the wings trace a figure eight pattern as the backward and forward wing strokes lift them. By simply changing the angle of their wings, the birds can maneuver and change the direction of their flight.

What Birds Can Fly Backwards?

Only a very small percentage of birds can fly backwards. Of this minuscule number some birds such as the flycatcher, warbler and heron can move backwards as a defensive maneuver. The cuckoo can appear to fly backwards when the wind is strong. It is only the hummingbird that can fly backwards for any length of time. And this unusual style of flight is because it can rotate its wings and trace the shape of the figure eight. This unique feature allows the hummingbird to perform some spectacular in flight acrobatic moves.

Facts About Hummingbird Flight Patterns and Speed

Hummingbird Flight Patterns

Hummingbirds beat their wings about eight to 200 times per second. Typically, the smaller birds of the species have a smaller wing span. They move their wings very fast in order to keep their small bodies airborne. The birds also tend to move their wings faster when they dive than during their usual flight.

The typical hummingbird flight is at a speed of 30 miles per hour. However, during the courtship ritual the male bird can dive at a stunning speed of 60 miles per hour. Hummingbirds require a high calorie diet in order to provide them the energy they require to sustain high speed flight and unusual midair turns. It is thus not surprising that they spend 90% of their time flying and hovering to feed. The birds consume nectar from flowers, tree sap and fruit juice from ripened, broken fruit. They also feed on fruit flies and other insects. On a daily basis an average hummingbird can consume twice its weight in sugar.

An average bird has about 1000 to 1500 feathers, which is much less than the feathers of other birds. This reduces the weight of the average hummingbird, and makes it easier for it to fly. A typical ruby throated hummingbird weighs close to a mere three grams.

How Far Can a Hummingbird Fly in a Day?

The hummingbird is native to North and South America. Its yearly migration from the eastern coast of the United States to Central America requires it to fly up to 1,300 miles. It completes this long journey without a break. It is believed that during migration it can fly up to 500 miles in a day.

Typically, the migration begins at the end of August and concludes in late October. And so the bird is able to complete the journey in good weather. Interestingly, older males are found to complete the migration faster than younger ones, and arrive at their destination in better shape.

How Far Do Hummingbirds Fly for Food?

Hummingbird Eating

An average hummingbird feeds about five to eight times in an hour. Since it consumes almost half of its weight in sugar on a daily basis, it spends a fair amount of time foraging for nectar, fruit flies and insects. It has superior eyesight and is able to identify brightly colored flowers from a fair distance. Furthermore, it has a good memory and remembers primary feeding areas, and returns to them often.

It is especially attracted to brightly colored blossoms that are elongated and tubular in shape. The bird’s uniquely shaped beak makes it easier to draw out the nectar it seeks. It uses its tongue to lap up the nectar, and can lick about thirteen times in a second. Prior to migration, the birds are known to gain 25-40% of their weight in preparation for the upcoming journey.

Bird watchers who want to attract these birds to their garden may wish to grow plants such as petunia, coral bell, trumpet creeper and bee balm. Hummingbirds seem to like these plants. In addition, one may place a hummingbird feeder at a safe location in the garden, which cannot be reached by cats.

How Fast Do Hummingbirds Fly?

As the birds are tiny and move about with great speed, it makes it difficult for researchers to observe them properly. Several research studies have been carried out to study and understand the flight of this Native American bird. However, it is only in the recent past that the use of miniature high speed cameras with a computer coordinated filming system has helped researchers gain a better understanding of hummingbird flight patterns.

Researchers had purported that it was the smaller hummingbirds that flew the fastest and were adept at making tight turns. However, studies have concluded that it is in fact the bigger and heavier hummingbirds that are able to accelerate their speed as well as execute sharp turns. This has been attributed to the bird’s relatively bigger wing span as well as stronger muscles as compared to smaller birds of the same species.

During the courtship ritual the Anna’s hummingbird can fly at a speed of 58 miles per hour as it tries to woo a prospective mate, and dives 100 feet in the air. A research study conducted by the University of California reported that the bird flies at an astounding 385 body lengths per second. Interestingly, this is faster than the speed at which a space shuttle would renter the earth’s atmosphere, and the speed of a fighter jet that has its afterburners on!

What Happens if a Hummingbird Stops Moving?

Hummingbird at Rest

Hummingbirds are perpetually on the move. If they are not flying forward, backward or sideways, they are usually hovering. In fact they get their name from the humming sound their wings make when they fly. Some people believe that if a hummingbird stops moving it will die. This is not true.

Even though most of the time when people observe hummingbirds they seem to be in perpetual flight, the birds do stop to rest. When they fall asleep, their metabolism drops as does their heart rate and breathing. While they sleep they are in the Torpor phase, a state akin to hibernation. Often they hang upside down from branches, and this may be why people mistakenly believe them to be dead.