Between Science and Magic: How Hummingbirds Hover at the Edge of the Possible

Green-tailed Hummingbird by William Swainson, 1841. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

How a tiny creature faster than the Space Shuttle balances the impossible equation of extreme fragility and superhuman strength.

BY MARIA POPOVA

Frida Kahlo painted a hummingbird into her fiercest self-portrait. Technology historian Steven Johnson drew on hummingbirds as the perfect metaphor for revolutionary innovation. Walt Whitman found great joy and solace in watching a hummingbird “coming and going, daintily balancing and shimmering about,” as he was learning anew how to balance a body coming and going in the world after his paralytic stroke. For poet and gardener Ross Gay, “the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia,” is indispensable to the “exercise in supreme attentiveness” that gardening offers.

Essential as pollinators and essential as muses to poets, hummingbirds animate every indigenous spiritual mythology of their native habitats and are sold as wearable trinkets on Etsy, to be worn as symbols — of joy, of levity, of magic — by modern secular humans across every imaginable habitat on our improbable planet.

Belted Hermit and Bishop Hermit Hummingbirds by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

There is, indeed, something almost magical to the creaturely reality of the hummingbird — something not supernatural but supranatural, hovering above the ordinary limits of what biology and physics conspire to render possible.

As if the evolution of ordinary bird flight weren’t miracle enough — scales transfigured into feathers, jaws transfigured into beaks, arms transfigured into wings — the hummingbird, like no other bird among the thousands of known avian species, can fly backward and upside-down, and can hover. It is hovering that most defiantly subverts the standard physics of bird flight: head practically still as the tiny turbine of feather and bone suspends the body mid-air — not by flapping up and down, as wings do in ordinary bird flight, but by swiveling rapidly along the invisible curvature of an infinity symbol. Millions of living, breathing gravity-defying space stations, right here on Earth, capable of slicing through the atmosphere at 385 body-lengths per second — faster than a falcon, faster than the Space Shuttle itself.

Pale-bellied Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

That supranatural marvel of nature is what Sy Montgomery — the naturalist who so memorably celebrated the otherworldly marvel of the octopus — celebrates in The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings (public library). She writes:

Alone among the world’s ten thousand avian species, only those in the hummingbird family, Trochilidae, can hover in midair. For centuries, nobody knew how they did it. They were considered pure magic.

[…]

Even the scientists succumbed to hummingbirds’ intoxicating mysteries: they classified them in an order called Apodiformes, which means “without feet” — for it was believed (incorrectly) for many years that a hummingbird had no need for feet. It was thought that no hummingbird ever perched, accounting in part for its sun-washed brilliance: as the comte de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, wrote in his 1775 Histoire naturelle, “The emerald, the ruby, and the topaz glitter in its garb, which is never soiled with the dust of the earth.”

Ruby-topaz Hummingbird by William Swainson, 1841. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

Science, being the supreme human implement of self-correction, eventually caught up to the reality of the hummingbird’s wispy feet, then unpeeled a thousand subtler and more astonishing realities about the extraordinary feats of which this flying jewel is capable. Montgomery writes:

Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky. Of their roughly 240 species, all confined to the Western Hemisphere, the largest, an Andean “giant,” is only eight inches long; the smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, is just over two inches long and weighs a single gram.

Delicacy is the trade-off that hummingbirds have made for their unrivaled powers of flight. Alone among birds, they can hover, fly backward, even fly upside down. For such small birds their speed is astonishing: in his courtship display to impress a female, a male Allen’s hummingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second — and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world…

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