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Hummingbirds navigate their way through small spaces in an unique way, new study suggests

A study shows the unique way hummingbirds fly through small spaces and the potential it has for human innovations.

Hummingbirds navigate their way through small spaces in an unique way, new study suggests
Cover Image Source: YouTube | Science News

Humans have filled the earth with innovation, but sometimes it is the animals that pave the way for the biggest breakthrough. That is what hummingbirds seem to be doing with their lightning-fast speed and ability to get through any space. Researchers are keen on analyzing this capability to introduce that mechanism into aircraft, as reported by Science News. This ability of hummingbirds to fly through any space came to light when they were captured in high-speed videos achieving that feat. It shocked the world, as the previous assertion was that they acted like other songbirds in such a situation and utilized the ballistic style.

Image Source: LA QUINTA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 21: A hummingbird is seen on the course during the second round of The American Express at La Quinta Country Club on January 21, 2022 in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Image Source: A hummingbird is seen on the course during the second round of The American Express at La Quinta Country Club on January 21, 2022, in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Hummingbirds fly by twisting their wings, which allows them to go backward as well as upside down. When it comes to going through small spaces, other songbirds have the advantage of bending their wings at the wrist. Hummingbirds do not have that flexibility. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) when faced with small spaces fly sideways to achieve their objective. To avoid a collision, the hummingbirds flutter their wings to go through the small spaces. After some repeated motion through the path, the hummingbirds flatten their wings and shoot through the spaces like a bullet.



 

“This is a new insight into the amazing capacity of hummingbirds,” says Bret Tobalske, a biomechanist at the University of Montana in Missoula, who wasn’t involved with the research. This capability is unique to hummingbirds and can be used by humans for their aircraft. Researchers can apply what they learn from hummingbirds to aerial vehicles or robots so that they can go through tight spaces. Bo Cheng, a mechanical engineer at Penn State, shared why it has taken so long for humans to achieve the hummingbirds' expertise. He appreciated the birds, calling them the best fliers with their fantastic ability to remember their spatial movements. They move around 40 beats per second with insane control over the flight. Engineering has not developed enough to replicate this ability.



 

This research on identifying how hummingbirds dealt with tight spaces was led by biologist Marc Badger. During his graduation days at the University of California, Badger saw the birds suck nectar from feeders and get involved in chases through thick bushes without any injury. This got him thinking about how these birds managed to move through these cramped spaces. To understand this, he and his colleagues put four male Anna’s hummingbirds in an enclosed flight arena. They were trained to fly between two feeders. After the training, the team introduced barriers with a hole ranging from 6 to 12 centimeters in diameter, equivalent to about half or a full hummingbird wingspan.



 

At first, their movement seemed like a blur, but a high-speed camera revealed that they moved sideways and shimmied their way through the gaps. “It was a shocking revelation to see the sideways scooch,” says Robert Dudley, a physiologist at UC Berkeley, "To slow it up and then go sideways and not drop in altitude was a novel behavior that had never been seen before.” It is still not clear whether the hummingbirds learned this technique during training or whether it is innate within them. “One story that I tell myself,” Badger says, “is that once they get a sense of what’s on the other side and a sense of their surroundings, then they switch over to this ballistic technique to avoid the consequences.”

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