Hummingbirds Can Withstand Turbulence Remarkably Well

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You've probably seen a slow-motion video of a hummingbird suspended in the air, wings flapping furiously to keep himself stationary as he enjoys a mid-flight sugary treat. But what about when there's wind? Hummingbirds can't go hungry just because there's a little weather to contend with. Sridhar Ravi, the lead scientists on a new study out about hummingbird stability in the face of turbulence, explained to Popular Mechanics that hummingbirds have to deal with different wind conditions all the time.

"That's like asking, 'how often do walking animals encounter uneven terrain?'" he said. "The answer is, basically all the time and they need to come up with strategies to contend with the unsteadiness of the medium."

To test how well hummingbirds deal with this unsteadiness, Ravi and his team tracked the body movements of four female ruby-throated hummingbirds as they navigated a wind tunnel to reach a sugar feeder at the far end. What they found was that hummingbirds are unparalleled at staying steady: Faced with winds of up to 10 mph, the hummingbirds kept their heads perfectly still while the rest of their bodies careened around to compensate. For comparison's sake, the 10 mph winds were considered a "turbulence intensity" of 15 percent. When professional pilots attempted the feat with mini drones, none of them could even keep the crafts in the air at a turbulence intensity of 5 percent.

Still too obscure? Ravi compared this feat to "asking a person to maintain perfect handwriting in a car as it is being driven off-road. Also note that the birds are experiencing accelerations up to 1G, implying the person must perform the task in the off-road car while instantaneously experiencing forces equivalent to their own weight!"

What the scientists didn't learn from this study is how the hummingbirds stay so steady. And while that research is certainly upcoming, don't hold your breath for hummingbird-style planes—Ravi said that their wings are just too complicated for us to mimic.