Large hummingbirds are just as good flyers as smaller ones.

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Dexterous hummingbirds can flap their wings up to 5,000 times a minute to create their signature drumming noise.

This skill means that up to 30 per cent of their body weight is made of flight muscle while for most birds it is around just 15 per cent.

This abundance of strength makes them excellent flyers and now researcher have found that even the largest of the hummingbirds are as skilled at flight as the tiniest ones.

The larger birds have evolved differences in muscle power and wing size – along with a touch of skill – to improve their in-flight agility. 

The Gould’s jewelfront (Heliodoxa aurescens) is a medium-sized bird that is around 5 inches long (12 cm) and weighs an average of about 6g. Researchers found that larger birds have more muscle and bigger wings 

The study shows that larger species of hummingbirds are still able to adapt to outmanoeuvre smaller species, despite their increased weight. 

Study co-lead author Dr Roslyn Dakin, of the University of British Columbia in Canada, said: ‘Studies of bats, birds and other animals show that increases in body mass can have a detrimental effect on many aspects of flight. 

‘But with hummingbirds, the correlated evolution of increased wing size and muscle mass helps larger species compensate for their greater body masses.’ 

The magnificent hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens) are the largest of the birds and are 4.3–5.5 inches in length (4.3–5.5 in) and weigh up to a third of an ounce (10g).

The Ecuadorian hillstar (Oreotrochilus chimborazo) was one of the birds studied. Normally an increase in body mass can have a detrimental effect on many aspects of flight but researchers found that isn't true for hummingbirds

Dr Dakin, study co-lead Dr Paolo Segre and Professor Douglas Altshuler used high speed video cameras to determine how manoeuvrability relates to differences in body shapes and sizes.

They found that acceleration is primarily driven by a bird’s muscle capacity, whereas manoeuvres involving rotations are driven primarily by wing size – but skill also plays a role. 

Professor Altshuler said: ‘The hummingbirds tend to play to their strengths, especially with complex moves. 

‘For example, species that have the ability to power through turns tend to use more arcing trajectories, and they shy away from performing turns in which they decelerate to turn on a dime.’ 

A stripe-throated hermit (Phaethornis striigularis) is pictured here - they are found throughout Central America and north-western South America. This study found that hummingbirds tend to play to their strengths 

Fiery-throated hummingbirds (Panterpe insignis) breeds only in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panam. Larger hummingbirds have the ability to power through turns tend to use more arcing trajectories

The researchers captured more than 200 individual hummingbirds from 25 Central and South American species. 

Computer vision technology developed by co-author Andrew Straw at the University of Freiburg in Germany enabled the researchers to record in-flight manoeuvres with precision. 

Dr Segre, now at Stanford University in California, said: ‘We recorded over 330,000 manoeuvres, including many repeated manoeuvres for each bird.

‘Capturing that much data was a challenge. Our first field site was at a biological reserve deep in the Peruvian Amazon, an area with many species of hummingbirds, but only accessible by boat.

Two Costa Rican locations were used by the researchers from the University of British Colombia to study the hummingbird and how they flew

In Northwestern South America, one site in Ecuador and one site in Peru allowed researchers to analyse the flight habits of a wide range of birds

La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, here the  authors of the study set up high-speed cameras to watch and record the movements, motions and habits of different hummingbird species 

The camera and generators were powered by solar powers in the rain forest, the adverse weather conditions forced the scientists to protect the delicate equipment from the pouring rain (pictured)

‘We ran our computers and cameras using solar panels and generators in a thatched hut with strategically placed rain buckets!’ 

Hummingbirds vary greatly in body mass and wing shape – and many species have evolved to perform at high elevation where the air density is low. 

Dr Dakin said that variety offers researchers a ‘great opportunity’ to study how traits relate to agility in flight. 

She added: ‘There are a lot of questions we can look into now, such as how do these differences impact their ability to survive and find mates? 

‘If manoeuverability is an advantage to some species, how do others get by with less agility? What is it about their lifestyle that differs?’ 

The research was published in the journal Science.  

 

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