Flight mechanics and control of escape manoeuvres in hummingbirds. I. Flight kinematics

Bo Cheng, Bret W. Tobalske, Donald R. Powers, Tyson L. Hedrick, Susan M. Wethington, George T.C. Chiu, Xinyan Deng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Hummingbirds are nature's masters of aerobatic manoeuvres. Previous research shows that hummingbirds and insects converged evolutionarily upon similar aerodynamic mechanisms and kinematics in hovering. Herein, we use three-dimensional kinematic data to begin to test for similar convergence of kinematics used for escape flight and to explore the effects of body size upon manoeuvring.We studied four hummingbird species in North America including two large species (magnificent hummingbird, Eugenes fulgens, 7.8 g, and blue-throated hummingbird, Lampornis clemenciae, 8.0 g) and two smaller species (broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris, 3.4 g, and black-chinned hummingbirds Archilochus alexandri, 3.1 g). Starting from a steady hover, hummingbirds consistently manoeuvred away from perceived threats using a drastic escape response that featured body pitch and roll rotations coupled with a large linear acceleration. Hummingbirds changed their flapping frequency and wing trajectory in all three degrees of freedom on a stroke-by-stroke basis, likely causing rapid and significant alteration of the magnitude and direction of aerodynamic forces. Thus it appears that the flight control of hummingbirds does not obey the 'helicopter model' that is valid for similar escape manoeuvres in fruit flies. Except for broad-billed hummingbirds, the hummingbirds had faster reaction times than those reported for visual feedback control in insects. The two larger hummingbird species performed pitch rotations and global-yaw turns with considerably larger magnitude than the smaller species, but roll rates and cumulative roll angles were similar among the four species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3518-3531
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 15 2016


  • Escape
  • Flapping
  • Hummingbird
  • Pitch
  • Roll


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