Ask a Naturalist: Can hummingbirds really fly backwards?

October 20, 2020

Written by Sara Tabatabai


They can!

While some birds are able to fly backwards for a short distance and time as a defensive strategy, hummingbirds are the only species of birds that are able to fly backwards for any length of time. They are also able to hover in place as well as fly upside down! Unlike other birds, hummingbirds have a rotator cuff, like humans, that support and strengthen the shoulder joint and allows the hummingbird’s wings to move in a figure eight motion. This adaptation to maneuver their wings in such a way is what gives these remarkable, small birds the ability to fly in any direction they want (up, down, forwards, backwards, side to side, hover, and again, even upside down from time to time)!

These busy birds are hardly ever still spare when they are resting or sleeping. They are constantly in motion and depending on the species and size, hummingbirds can flap their wing between 12 to 80 beats per second. This number can reach as high as 200 beats per second when they are diving! Their amazing flight patterns and ability to quickly change directions in seconds are what make these birds incredibly fascinating to watch!


Check out this spectacular video from the Smithsonian Channel capturing hummingbirds in flight in slow-motion and learn more about their extraordinary wings!



Don’t have a hummingbird feeder? You can easily make your own by reusing materials you may have around your house! Check out these two tutorials on how to make various feeders.




Have a hummingbird feeder? Check out Audubon’s easy recipe for making sugar nectar safe and beneficial to our local hummingbirds. 

By supporting local hummingbird populations, you are also supporting plant growth because hummingbirds are one of nature’s many pollinators! Because their primary source of food is nectar, they visit between 1,000 – 2,000 flowers a day which helps cross-pollination. Without pollinators like hummingbirds, we wouldn’t have the rich biodiversity of plants that we have today!

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about hummingbirds and other birds found in this area? Check out our ARNHA book 150 Frequently Seen Birds of California’s Great Valley! You can purchase one from our website or the Nature Center!   


Also check out The Cornell Lab website, All About Birds, to discover more about hummingbirds both locally and around the world. What makes this website so amazing is the opportunity to hear recordings of their calls and songs! 

Here’s their page on the Anna’s Hummingbird, a common hummingbird found in the Nature Preserve and even your backyard!