There's more to discover. Continue scrolling for the full article below.
Relative to their body size, hummingbirds are among the fastest species of the natural world, with only insects such as fleas being capable of faster size-to-speed ratios. But how do these tiny birds reach such speeds, and what is the top speed of a hummingbird?
To learn more about the incredible adaptations of hummingbirds and how they reach such impressive speeds, please read on.
The average speed of all hummingbird species is around 42 km/h (26 mph). However, some species, including the male Anna’s Hummingbird, can reach a maximum velocity of up to 97 km/h (60 mph) during its dramatic aerial courtship displays.
Hummingbirds have an extremely rapid metabolism and are able to achieve complex and sustained acrobatic flight, including upside-down, backward, and hovering maneuvers. For such tiny birds to cover migrations over astonishingly long distances is a remarkable enough feat, but when the actual flight capabilities of hummingbirds are studied in closer detail, they become even more impressive.
So how do hummingbirds achieve such phenomenal speeds and how do they power their energy-intensive flights? Read on as we take an in-depth look at arguably the most agile aviators of the natural world.
On average, hummingbirds fly at speeds of around 42 km/h (26 mph). Such speeds are not used all the time, for example, when moving from flower to flower, a more leisurely pace of 3 km/h (2 mph) is more typical. They cover long distances on a daily basis, at relatively low altitudes, covering up to 37 km (23 mi) each day in search of vital nectar resources.
Not all hummingbirds are capable of extended flight at the top speeds recorded by the fastest species, the Anna’s Hummingbird.
There’s also some variation in wingbeats per second among hummingbird species, which across the family is on average 53 beats per second: at the lower end of the scale are Giant Hummingbirds, which flap their wings around 10 to 15 times per second, and at the other extreme, the Amethyst Wood Hummingbird, which has a wingbeat speed of 80 beats per second.
Pictured: A Giant Hummingbird. On average, hummingbirds fly at speeds of around 42 km/h (26 mph)
Male Anna’s Hummingbirds perform spectacular high-speed dives as part of their courtship rituals, outpacing fighter jets and space shuttles on the basis of velocity vs. body size. Plunging dives that reach speeds of 27.3 m (89.6 ft) per second, are intended to impress potential female mates and are incorporated into a series of swooping and soaring flights.
In context, the plunging dive of a male Anna’s Hummingbird is clocked at 385 body lengths per second (blps). This can be compared to other birds with reputations as particularly fast fliers, including the Peregrine Falcon, which reaches a maximum speed of 200 bpls, or the swooping flight of a Swallow, at 350 blps.
Pictured: An Anna's Hummingbird. The males of this species perform spectacular high-speed dives as part of their courtship rituals
The extraordinary speeds achieved by hummingbirds are thanks to one crucial part of their anatomy: their wings. Flight techniques of hummingbirds are perhaps more similar to those seen in insects rather than those of most other bird species.
Hummingbirds are able to rotate their propellor-shaped wings on the upstroke during flight, effectively twisting their wings through a figure-of-eight movement of 140 degrees. This twisting motion of each wingbeat generates lift on the upstroke, rather than solely on the downstroke as is the case with typical bird flight. And in turn, the vast number of beats per second leads to unparalleled flight speeds.
Hummingbirds’ wings usually beat at a speed of around 50 beats per second, but they are able to adapt the speed of their wingbeats to take advantage of wind speeds and fly even faster. Their streamlined body shape, elongated wings, and miniature size means they are particularly aerodynamic with less resistance and drag against the air in flight.
The flight muscles of hummingbirds are considerably stronger in relation to their body size when compared to those of other bird species. Each wingbeat generates more power, which means they are capable of faster-sustained flight over longer distances.
Pictured: Pair of Rufous-gaped Hillstars. Flight techniques of hummingbirds are perhaps more similar to those seen in insects rather than those of most other bird species
Unlike most larger, less agile bird species, hummingbirds rarely land and their legs and feet are particularly ineffective as they are not well adapted for walking or perching while foraging for food.
Rapid flight is important as it enables them to evade predators, as well as travel between flowers stocking up on the energy they need to meet the needs of their unusually fast metabolism. Fast flight allows hummingbirds to cover vast distances between foraging grounds, meaning they have access to enough insects and nectar they must consume each day just to stay alive.
Hummingbirds have a notoriously high metabolic rate and need to eat all day long simply to ensure their own survival.
On a daily basis, they eat around half their body weight in bugs and nectar, visiting up to 2,000 flowers each day. They need to feed every 10 to 15 minutes, to ensure their energy levels remain sufficient to power their rapid wingbeats and hovering flight.
Pictured: A Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Hummingbirds eat around half their body weight in bugs and nectar
The unique wing structure of hummingbirds enables them to twist the ‘wrist’ of their wings during each wingbeat, rather than limiting motion to simply upward and downward movements.
By inverting their wings, using rapid wingbeats of up to 80 beats per second, hummingbirds are able to acrobatically dart from flower to flower in search of nectar, as well as hovering for long periods in the same spot and changing direction by flying backward instead of landing and taking off.
Hummingbirds are the only birds that possess the skill of flying backward for extended periods of time, using their rapid wingbeats and twisting their outstretched wings to change direction as they visit flower after flower.
Unlike most bird species that feed on plants, hummingbirds need to be able to move between nectar sources without briefly landing, so their ability to ‘reverse’ before moving forward to the next feeding spot is a key adaptation of birds in this family.
Perhaps the most talented acrobats of the avian world, hummingbirds can indeed fly upside down for brief periods, defying all the laws of traditional bird flight as we know it.
Pictured: A Velvet-purple Coronet. Hummingbirds can indeed fly upside down for brief periods
Hummingbirds have been known to undertake epic journeys of up to 2200 km (1300 mi) without a break. Not all lengthy migrations are non-stop, with short breaks of several days usually being taken en-route. However, migration across oceans is not uncommon, where distances of more than 1000 miles are covered without interruption.
Hummingbirds can continue to fly in light or moderate rain without any adverse effects, and their water-repellant plumage allows them to continue to fly and feed relatively normally in mildly wet conditions.
Due to their incredibly fast metabolism, hummingbirds cannot survive long without feeding, and in periods of prolonged rainfall, they need to adapt to attempt to continue flying and feeding regularly. By shaking their bodies, adopting a more horizontal position, and increasing the frequency of wingbeats, hummingbirds are able to carry on flying in heavier rain.
Pictured: A Ruby Topaz Hummingbird. Hummingbirds have been known to undertake epic journeys of up to 2200 km (1300 mi) without a break
Due to their high metabolic rate and typical heart rate of up to 1260 per minute, it may be surprising to learn that hummingbirds can survive and even thrive at high altitudes where oxygen is in short supply.
Native to the Andes, the Giant Hummingbird lives at altitudes of up to 4,000 m (14,000 ft). Their migration flights regularly take place at up to 150 m (500 ft) above the ground level.
In normal flight, the average number of wingbeats per minute across hummingbird species is around 53 beats per second. Larger species, such as the Giant Hummingbird, flap their wings around 10 to 15 times each second, while the fastest recorded species is the Amethyst Woodstar Hummingbird, with a wingbeat rate recorded at 80 per second.
Interestingly, the fastest recorded wingbeat in nature is not actually a hummingbird but does have links to these tiny hovering avians. The Hummingbird Hawk-moth closely mimics the flight of hummingbirds, recording wingbeat speeds of up to 85 per second.
Dragonflies vs. Hummingbirds are one of nature’s closest-run races. Dragonflies are typically larger and more powerful and can reach speeds of up to 55 km (35 mi) per hour, in direct flight, compared to 50 km (30 mi) per hour recorded by hummingbirds.
A well-deserving candidate for the fastest species alive, the cheetah can reach a top speed of around 112 km/h (70 mph), while hummingbirds’ maximum speeds are less than half this, at 50 km/h (30 mph). When compared on a length-to-body size basis, cheetahs cover 16 body lengths per second, while the top-speed hummingbirds reach an impressive 385 body lengths per second.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.