Most of us see birds every day without stopping to marvel at just how amazing their flight is. From high-speed hunters to travelers that migrate to opposite ends of the Earth, millions of years of evolution have shaped birds into the impressive diversity we see today.
In this article, we’ll be diving into an interesting question that comes up from time to time regarding the direction of bird flight. More specifically- Can birds fly backwards?
Many birds can move backwards for short distances using an external force like wind or gravity, but the only group that has truly mastered backward flight are the Hummingbirds. These tiny American birds can fly in any direction and even hover motionless while feeding.
There’s much more to discover about backward bird flight. Read along with us to learn all about this fascinating behavior.
Hummingbirds are the only type of birds that can truly fly backward
Successful flight relies on a complex sequence of events, using various body parts, movements, and timing. Let’s take a brief look at the basics of bird flight.
Almost everything about a bird's body has adapted for flight. Birds are built light, with hollow bones and lightweight feathers arranged in a streamlined pattern to reduce air resistance. Their long and powerful legs are used to provide the initial lift as they launch themselves into the air.
A bird’s wings are situated high on its body, with most of its weight below so that they lift and pull themselves through the air. Birds’ wings and flight feathers are asymmetrical, with a convex upper surface that creates a pressure differential and causes lift.
Bird flight is controlled primarily through two large muscle groups in the chest area. The pectoralis is the largest muscle in most birds, and it contracts to pull the wings downward, lifting the bird’s body in the opposite direction relative to the ground. The supracoracoideus is a smaller muscle that raises the wings before the next downstroke.
Considering the basic principles of bird flight, you can probably tell that flying backward requires some special adaptations. Yet, one particular group of birds has evolved to master this complex aerial maneuver.
Close up of a Lilac-breasted Roller in flight
The world’s smallest birds (the smallest bird species is a Hummingbird) are also some of the most acrobatic. Over 300 species of these flying jewels from the Trochilidae family call North and South America home, and their natural diet of nectar has shaped them into the birds we know today.
You see, Hummingbirds need to insert their bills into flowers to get a drink, only there’s often no convenient place to perch while they feed. To counter this, these little birds simply eat in flight, but this requires the ability to hover in place.
Hovering and darting forward to dip their bill into the flower is tough enough, but these amazing little birds have to move backward to move onto the next flower or stay in place in the wind, and that’s why Hummingbirds have developed the unique ability to fly in reverse.
Hummingbirds have small, narrow wings powered by massive flight muscles, and they move their wings in a unique, figure-8 pattern rather than a simple back-and-forth flap. While most birds have supracoracoideus muscles just 20% as big as their pectoralis, the ratio is more like 1:2 in Hummers.
To stay in place while feeding, some Hummingbirds can flap their wings at a ridiculous 80 flaps per second. All that effort requires a serious cardiovascular system, so Hummingbird’s hearts can work at up to 1,200 beats per minute!
Continue reading to learn more about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of backward flight.
Nature's Helicopter, the hummingbird (White-bellied Woodstar)
Sustained flapping flight requires a lot of energy, which explains why many of the world’s heavier birds are so well adapted to soaring and gliding. However, long and narrow gliding wings or broad and massive soaring wings just wouldn’t be practical on a nimble little creature like a Hummingbird.
Hummingbirds move their wings in a rapid figure-8 pattern that allows them to build thrust on both the downstroke and backstroke. To control their direction while hovering between food sources, they simply change the direction of their wing strokes in relation to their bodies.
While Hummingbirds don’t need to reverse for any great distance, there are times when they need to fly backwards pretty fast.
Out in the wild, Hummingbirds need to generate enough backward force to hold their position against a powerful tailwind while feeding, which is the equivalent of flying backward at high speed.
Hummingbirds move their wings in a rapid figure-8 pattern that allows them to build thrust on both the downstroke and backstroke
So we know that Hummingbirds need to fly backwards when darting between one flower and the next, but are there any other scenarios where a bird might need to fly backwards?
Many birds seemingly take off vertically from their perch, using their wings to generate lift directly upwards. However, much of the initial lift comes from their legs as they leap upwards and sometimes backward to get started.
Takeoff isn’t the only time we see birds moving in reverse. They can also use gravity to fall backward after snatching an insect from below a leaf or even allow the wind to carry them backward in the case of a hovering Kestrel.
The process of evolution fine-tunes species to survive in specific niches. Therefore, birds are perfectly adapted to survive, feed, and reproduce in particular geographical areas, at particular times or seasons, and with a particular collection of other plant and animal species.
If a bird species doesn’t need a specialized ability (like flying backward) to survive and reproduce, it is unlikely to develop that ability in the first place, especially if it comes at a cost of more important adaptations.
Great Egret in flight
Bird wings have evolved into the amazing array of shapes and sizes we see today for a few major purposes, including:
Most birds have moderately sized, rounded or somewhat pointed wings that they use for sustained flight. However, some species have very specialized wing shapes and flight patterns.
Let’s take a brief look at a few of the more remarkable wing and flight patterns in the bird world.
Built for speed and endurance, Swifts use their narrow, curved wings to hunt flying insects on the wing. These remarkable birds spend nearly their entire lives in the air, usually only landing to nest. Swifts flap their wings in level flight to gain speed but also glide for long periods.
Albatrosses are large seabirds with the longest wings of any bird. These amazing animals can fly impressive distances without ever flapping their narrow, streamlined wings. The secret to this energy-efficient flight technique is their ability to harness the free energy in wind.
Large birds of prey like the Golden Eagle have broad and massive wings with long, prominent primary feathers that look like fingertips. These birds can fly by flapping flight, although this requires a lot of energy for such heavy species. Their solution is to soar using the free power of warm, rising air and wind directed upwards along mountain slopes.
Many diving seabirds like Puffins and Razorbills use their wings to literally fly through the water in search of food. Water is much denser than air, so these birds have relatively small wings to cope with added force. While this makes them great swimmers, it also reduces their flying ability, so they must flap constantly to stay airborne.
Common Swift in flight
You and I might know that Hummingbirds are the only avians that can really fly backwards, but two other mythical species were said to have similar abilities.
The Oozlum bird of British and Australian folklore and the Goofus bird of North America are two humorous mythical creatures that fly backward in a tighter and tighter spiral until they literally disappear into themselves!
Modern technology has allowed scientists to study bird flight in greater and greater detail, resulting in regular new discoveries.
Photography and videography are incredibly useful tools for this field of research because they allow scientists to analyze something as rapid as bird flight in slow motion.
By attaching reflective markers to key areas of the bird’s body, scientists can also track bird movements, model them in 3d with computer software, and isolate aspects of their motion invisible to the eye.
High angle shot of a Razorbill in flight
So now you know - Hummingbirds are the only birds that can truly fly backwards. If you live in North or South America, you may want to pay extra attention to these marvels of nature the next time they migrate into your area.
No matter where you live, we hope this article has inspired you to look up and appreciate the remarkable ability of all our feathered friends!
Almost any bird can move backward through the air in flight, especially when taking off in strong wind or collecting food or nesting material from the underside of vegetation or the roof of a building. However, true backward flight is very rare and known only from the Hummingbird family.
Hummingbirds are not the only animals that can fly backwards. Many insects, including dragonflies and hawk moths, are just as agile.
While Hummingbirds can reach impressive speeds of up to 30 miles per hour in forward flight, they are significantly slower in reverse. However, research under controlled laboratory conditions indicates that these birds are capable of hovering still against winds as strong as 20 miles per hour.
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