Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.
What can fly forward, backward, upside down, and hover in place? It's not Superman - and it's not a joke! It's a hummingbird, and the way they fly is not the only amazing thing about them.
If you've ever seen hummingbirds, you might have mistaken them for giant bees. They are the world's smallest birds and they aren't much bigger than some insects. They even make a humming sound with their wings when they fly.
What makes their flying abilities really special is how their wings are designed. First, their shoulder bones are attached differently than other birds so they are able to move their wings in a figure-eight pattern, rather than just up and down. That particular motion lets them hover in place. Their elbow and wrist bones are also fused, which is different than other birds. Their chest muscles are big and strong (the chest muscles are actually a third of their total body weight), which makes them able to beat their wings between 50 and 200 times a second. That's faster than you can see!
Hummingbirds fly fast too. A few decades ago, scientists got the idea to test hummingbirds in a wind tunnel to see just how fast they can go. What the scientists found out is that hummingbirds normally fly at 30 miles per hour, but when a male dives through the air to impress a female, he does it at 60 miles per hour. That's almost the speed limit on most freeways!
Tiny Hummingbirds, Big Eaters!
All that speed requires a lot of energy, and hummingbirds get energy by eating their weight in sugary food every day. Most of that comes from nectar from flowers, but sometimes they eat insects too. Often, the shape of their bill is similar to the shape of the flower they reach into for nectar. In other words, if a particular kind of hummingbird specializes in feeding on long, curved flowers, then it probably needs a long, curved bill to get the job done. Hummingbirds eat fast too, taking 15 to 20 slurps of nectar with their tongue each second!
Shiny, Flying Jewels
Another thing you may have noticed about hummingbirds is that they can be colorful and shiny, but often it's only when the light hits them just right. Other birds can be colorful, but that shiny, iridescent quality is not something all birds have. Surprisingly, the only real colors on a hummingbird are brown and black. Those shiny, colorful patches happen because there are microscopic air bubbles in their feathers that catch the light in particular ways, sort of like the colors you see in shampoo bubbles.
If you live in the Americas, from Alaska in the north, all the way to the bottom of Chile in the south, then you live where hummingbirds do. Hummingbirds only live in the Americas. Sometimes hummingbirds don't stay put all year, though. Some migrate each year to other places and the journeys can be long. One kind of hummingbird even flies 500 miles straight over the Gulf of Mexico.
Hummingbirds are amazing flyers who live in the Americas and sometimes migrate great distances. They often have bill lengths and shapes that match the length and shape of the flowers they feed from (eating mostly nectar!). The shiny, iridescent colors you often see on hummingbirds comes from tiny air bubbles in their feathers.
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