Hummingbirds can fly upside down, but only temporarily for a few seconds. They are the only bird type that can fly upside down, sideways, and backwards. Most birds can only appear to fly upside down temporarily as an aerial maneuver to avoid predation.
Hummingbirds can be seen flying upside down when reaching into down-turned flowers for nectar.
One of the reasons for flying upside down is that it makes feeding more efficient, so they don’t waste energy moving further for flowers that aren’t facing the ground.
Energy uptake is very important for hummingbirds because they have an extremely high metabolism that they need to manage by constantly feeding on nectar.
Why Do Hummingbirds Fly Upside Down?
Hummingbirds fly upside down to acquire nectar from flowers hanging with the opening facing the ground. Another reason they fly upside down is to evade an attacking bird predator.
Hummingbirds are able to fly upside down because they have traits that make them an exception to the rule that prevents most birds from flying upside down.
In almost all other birds, the wings flap upwards and downwards, which creates downward force and allows the birds to maintain altitude.
Hummingbirds, on the other hand, move and twist their wings upwards, downwards, forwards, and backwards – making a figure of eight motion.
The result of twisting the wings in such a manner is that hummingbirds are able to generate lift on the downstroke and the upstroke. This is one of the reasons why hummingbirds can fly in so many directions, including upside down and backwards.
The figure of eight motion allows hummingbirds to fly in almost any direction and move very rapidly and efficiently. Twisting the wings to a different angle causes the bird to change direction without much effort.
The figure of eight wing movement is brought about by the internal anatomy of the hummingbird’s shoulders. The shoulders of hummingbirds contain ball and socket joints held together and supported by a unique rotator cuff that connects the wings to the body.
The specialized rotator cuff allows the hummingbirds to revolve their wings over 180 degrees on the shoulders and point them in any direction.
In addition, the shoulder and elbow joints of the wings are close to their bodies, making rotating and tilting in flight more efficient.
How Long Can Hummingbirds Fly Upside Down For?
Hummingbirds can only fly upside down for a few seconds. Hummingbirds only need to fly upside down for a few seconds because they mainly use this behavior in situations when they need to obtain nectar from a flower facing downwards.
They fly upside down because they must have their heads facing up into the flower to get to the nectar with their bills.
The close proximity of the wings to the body and rotating joints aid in this behavior and allow them to feed at any angle.
Can Hummingbirds Fly Sideways?
Yes, hummingbirds can fly sideways. They fly sideways when moving from one flower to the next.
In addition to the information about the rotator cuff and ball and socket joint mentioned previously, hummingbirds have specific physiological and morphological adaptations that allow them to fly in any direction, including sideways, backwards, and upside down:
- Hummingbirds have a fused spine, fused hip bones, and hollow bones to negate the need for excess muscles and ligaments and, in turn, decrease the bird’s weight while maintaining internal support.
- A hummingbird’s heart is expanded and that allows more oxygen and blood to be circulated around the body, to maintain the extreme levels at which the hummingbird body functions.
- Hummingbirds have tiny feet that weigh less and keep aerodynamic drag at a minimum.
What Is Whiffling?
A bird’s wing feathers are positioned in such a way that they fasten together during flight to form an aerofoil against air flowing from beneath.
Most birds can’t fly upside down because the feathers lose their strong bonding with each other, and gaps open up.
Opening gaps between the feathers allows air to flow through and prevents birds from maintaining elevation.
Instead of flying upside down, some birds display an aerial behavior known as whiffling. Whiffling is a flying maneuver that swiftly reduces the bird’s speed by turning upside down and dropping down rapidly to land.
Whiffling is a commonly witnessed behavior in geese. They roll their bodies upside down while twisting their necks to ensure their heads remain upright.
Birds may whiffle for several reasons, including predator evasion, hunting, slipstreaming, courtship displays, playing or simply remaining in flight during windy conditions.
Whiffling Physics Explained
Whiffling is an extraordinary behavioral adaptation that birds possess because they can withstand an extreme amount of gravitational force during this maneuver.
Not every bird species is capable of whiffling. Whether a bird can or can’t whiffle depends on the specific bird’s skeletal structure and bone density.
Lighter birds are generally far more capable of whiffling, as birds with less mass due to lightweight bones are far more capable of such flight movements.
Species that can whiffle also have body structures that are more aerodynamic than others.
Whiffling is a trait that some birds are born with, and birds cannot learn it.
In theory, an enormous wingspan may allow birds to whiffle more frequently, but that is not the case.
Look at the tiny hummingbirds, for example. They are the most well-adapted birds for flying upside down, but they have some of the shortest wingspans amongst birds.
Which Other Birds Can Fly Upside Down?
The following are some of the birds that are known to whiffle:
- Hummingbirds (Trochilidae)
- Terns (Laridae)
- Common Raven (Corvus corax)
- Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
- Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius)
- Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
- Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
- Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
- American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)
- Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
- Semi-palmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)
- American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica)
- Dowitchers (Limnodromus sp.)
How Fast Can Hummingbirds Fly?
Hummingbirds can fly at a rapid speed if they desire to do so.
The top speed of hummingbirds in routine flight has been recorded at around 54 kilometers per hour.
The wing flapping rate determines the speed at which hummingbirds fly.
The rate at which hummingbirds flap their wings varies depending on the size of the bird. The tiniest hummingbirds, like the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), flap their wings at around 80 beats per second. On the other end of the scale are the largest hummingbirds, such as the Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas), which has a wing beat rate of 12 beats per second.
During dives, hummingbirds can flap their wings at almost 200 beats per second and reach speeds of up to 79 kilometers per hour!
The humming sound produced by the flapping wings is what hummingbirds are named after.
How To Observe Hummingbirds In Flight
Hummingbirds are popular birds to attract to your yard.
One of the ways to observe the hummingbirds in action is to plant hummingbird-friendly flowering plants that provide fresh nectar to the birds.
Alternatively, you can put up special hummingbird feeders made from either plastic or glass. Sugar water can be poured into the feeders and used as a nectar substitute for the hummingbirds.
There are a few factors to consider when feeding hummingbirds sugar water, especially when it is cold. Cold sugar water can cause the hummingbirds to go into hypothermic shock and potentially die. It is also essential that the feeders are kept clean.
Providing the hummingbirds with nectar or sugar water will let them put on a show you can witness from the comfort of your home.
The best way to see hummingbirds perform upside-down maneuvers is to plant plants that have dangling flowers.
Hummingbirds can fly upside down but usually only for a few seconds.
The most common reason they fly upside down is to get into nectar-containing flowers from below. The behavior makes energy acquisition more efficient.
Hummingbirds in flight are a fascinating sight to witness because of their maneuverability and dashing colors.
They can fly in many different directions, including upside down, sideways, and backwards – a unique ability amongst birds.