What Can Hummingbirds Teach Us About Navigating Life?

If you need some inspiration this morning, consider this new research from University of California-Berkeley conducted in conjunction with the Berkeley Animal Flight Laboratory. Titled: Natural barriers: waterfall transit by small flying animals, the researchers wanted to discover how small flying animals and insects navigate the rushing waters of one of nature’s most beautiful gifts, a waterfall.

Researchers created an artificial waterfall; Anna’s Hummingbirds were used for the experiment.

Live bird trapping was carried out under permits from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.201185

Understand birds are often netted and banded for scientific research, then released. Studying birds at a banding table, or in a lab, allows the world to better understand these winged-creatures; banding also helps keep tabs on the health of bird populations. In the case of the Anna’s hummingbird, because of banding, scientists know, the oldest recorded Anna’s Hummingbird was at least 8 years, 2 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in Arizona. Bird banding is a very respectful process.

Meet the Anna’s hummingbird. The male is the more colorful one. Photos from the Cornell Lab at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Anna’s Hummingbird; On the left is the male; on the right is the female.

There are over 300 species of hummingbirds soaring the planet; the Anna’s hummingbird lives and reproduces along the Western coast of the United States. This little creature was named after the Duchess Anna de Belle Masséna; see the birds fly here.

Research always begins with a question which leads to a hypothesis–call it a prediction or an educated guess. Researchers then design a test to see if the hypothesis has merit. Here is what the researchers were thinking and wanted to understand for this experiment:

Small animal fliers, such as hummingbirds and insects, seem behaviourally to avoid waterfalls and tend not to cross them. However, these taxa are commonly exposed to severe precipitation events …For example, hummingbirds and mosquitoes can easily compensate for wetting and impact forces produced by strong rain. Nevertheless, the momentum of smaller fliers may be insufficient to travel through waterfalls. 

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.201185

Essentially, the researchers knew hummingbirds and small insects could fly through rain events, but they weren’t so sure about their ability to fly through a waterfall. Think about this for a moment, the average weight of an Anna’s hummingbird is 5 grams; that’s about what a U.S. nickel weighs. So imagine trying to get a nickel through a rushing waterfall.

Did the hummingbirds succeed? If so, how? Did they go beak first? Did they avoid the rushing water altogether? Did they have some magic trick? What about the insects?

Hummingbirds were successful in this task, but slow-moving insects entered and remained trapped in the downward water flow. Insects that did cross the waterfall typically experienced substantial nose-down pitch and a subsequent downward trajectory, but some individuals recovered their trajectory and even flew upward.

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.201185

To get through the artificial waterfall, the hummingbirds used the tip of a wing, and then the leading edge of the wing to navigate through the rushing water. The researchers even filmed the process with a hummingbird and an insect. Pretty amazing.

It seems to me there is a lesson in this experiment beyond the science; a lesson about how to navigate life, especially right now. Do we fly into the falling water head-on in an attempt to force our lives back to a pre-pandemic normal? Do we flounder like some insects? Or, like the hummingbird, do we change our speed of life (maybe to slower, not faster); pierce the angst; and move forward with a leading edge into a future world which we can already predict will look very different.

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