Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ornicopia 11: Are hummingbirds the only birds that fly backward?

110.  Are hummingbirds the only birds that fly backward?   While hummingbirds are probably the champions of backward flight, they are by no means the only birds that can fly in this way. When two herons or egrets fight, periodically one of them caught at a disadvantage in the dispute will flutter backward.  Occasionally warblers fluttering at the tip of a branch as they pick off insects will flutter backward to a better position.  Flycatchers regularly flutter backward when they overshoot some flying insect.  It is probable that any bird which uses fluttering flight can move backward when pressed to do so.


NOTE:  It’s funny that this 1001 Questions Answered About Birds entry is a bit of an authors’ editorial misstep
Pose the question in the way they did, leading off with the “champion” description in the first sentence and ALL anyone really wants to know is more about hummingbirds. 

Forget (for now) lovely herons, egrets and warblers. 

HOW do hummingbirds do it and, more importantly, WHY do they do it? 

The answer to the second question is, of course, obvious: Because they can. 

It is part of the great talent, freedom and commitment to that talent and freedom that God gave them. 

A long time ago I had a friend whose salient trait was that he invariably drove in the wrong direction fast.  He was a nice person (basically; troubled, a little hostile, but a good soul), but he was the opposite of the hummingbird: a sad poor human heavily burdened with a highly symbolic deficit. 

I would give anything to fly and I’d love to fly like a hummingbird.


Faust: Don't Take Roots (Link) 

From:  1001 Questions Answered About Birds by Allan D. Cruickshank and Helen G. Cruickshank (Toronto, General Publishing Company, 1958).


  1. Curtis,

    You've reminded me of Lawrence's hummingbirds "racing down the avenues".

    Do you suppose he ever fancied those prehistoric racing lanes as mobbed with hummers moving at or near the speed of light IN REVERSE?

  2. What a strange thing the "sense of direction" is. When I think about how it's distributed among my friends, I notice some unexpected patterns.

    Of course, there's also a separate capacity, the capacity to move in any direction at all. Personally I've always found that one more challenging.

    I thought of "Driving Me Backwards" right away. You can't imagine how good it sounds on the speakers in my office, although I do prefer the June 1974 version.

  3. Yes, you are right. We only want more and more hummingbirds. I love them--and what is not to love. The amazing speed at which they zip about and their bright colors . .. Enough to make anyone feel happy, if only for a moment.

  4. Tom: The Lawrence poem is just....astonishing. Takes your breath away like the hummingbirds.

    Chris/Nin: I'm glad this reached you. I'm glad it reached ME, which it did through the convenient avenue of Jane, who has taken up reading 1001 Questions, asking me the "birds flying backwards" question.

    I hope our old friend finally settled down and learned to drive in the right direction. Getting into the car with him was absolutely terrifying. Once I noticed an entire back seat filled with passengers crossing themselves simultaneously when Howard was at the wheel. I remember once when he struck several parked cars and didn't notice it. It's a Wild Kingdom out there for sure.


  5. Hi, I'm a blogger in Taiwan. I'd like to post an article about hummingbird's flight pattern. Can I use the third photo here to explaine it in my blog? I will cite the source and give credit to you. This is my blog

    1. Yes, of course you may. And thank you for asking. Curtis