Have you ever wanted to understand more about hovering and whether birds can hover? Hovering is an unusual ability that only hummingbirds possess, although many other birds can achieve something like hovering given the right conditions, which makes it more challenging to understand. There are many different kinds of birds with different skills and agility in the air, so it may not surprise you to find out that only hummingbirds can truly hover – but why have these birds developed this skill?
Hovering means that the bird is staying in one position in the air, and not moving forward or backward, or going up or down (significantly), and no birds except hummingbirds can do this if the air is still and there is little breeze. To remain in the air, birds need to be flying forward, and if they cannot do this, they cannot stay in flight, because the way that their wings beat creates forward motion at all times.
Hovering (even the kind of hovering that only allows a bird to remain airborne due to wind movement) offers some major advantages to birds, giving themselves more aerial control and the ability to hunt or feed in more challenging environments. The birds that can “hover” are mostly birds of prey, but the hummingbird is probably the best known bird when it comes to hovering, and it has a unique wing movement that allows it to do this.
Can Any Birds Hover?
No, most birds cannot hover properly, although many do have the ability to stay more or less stationary in the air provided the conditions are right – they need a headwind. If there is a wind to counter the bird’s forward motion, it can match the speed at which it beats its wings to this wind, and remain in approximately the same place even though it is moving forward, because the wind is simultaneously pushing it back. Most birds are capable of doing this, but it is completely dependent on there being enough wind for them to utilize the strategy.
Hovering, however, requires the bird to be able to sustain flight without moving forward through the air, and only a hummingbird can do this. Its unique ability comes from the fact that it beats its wings in a figure of eight motion, rather than up and down, and this means it can stay in one spot while it drinks nectar from a flower. Owing to this motion, it can even fly backward if it chooses to, giving it superb control in the air, and allowing it to stay up without having to also travel forward.
Many birds use the other kind of hovering technique by balancing on the wind. Although it is easier for small birds to do this because they have less gravitational pull, there are some surprisingly large birds that employ the technique, such as eagles, buzzards, hawks, and ospreys.
Why Do Birds Hover In Place?
The hummingbird evolved the ability to hover purely as a strategy for accessing its primary food source, which is nectar from flowers. Instead of having to land on or near every flower that it wants to feed on, the hummingbird can dart between them and feed selectively from whichever flower has produced enough nectar to attract it. Because take off and landing require a lot of energy, it’s a far more efficient strategy for the hummingbird to simply remain in the air and access its food by hovering.
Birds that use the hovering in the headwind strategy have developed it for the same reason: it gives them access to a food source that, in some cases, they would not be able to reach without this technique. Some birds of prey use hovering to hunt in spaces where there are no convenient perches, and as a means of making themselves less visible to their prey – a shadow sweeping overhead might alert a rabbit to their presence, whereas a hovering bird is fairly inconspicuous. Some birds hover over water so that they can plunge in and snatch up fish, and again, there is no perch here, so hovering is the only viable strategy for reaching the prey.
Hovering is therefore a crucial technique for feeding, giving the birds access to wide open spaces and food that would otherwise be impractical to harvest. Birds that cannot hover find it harder to take prey by surprise, and generally employ other hunting strategies.
How Long Can A Bird Hover?
Unfortunately, there are no estimates on how long a hummingbird can hover; this bird swaps between flight and hovering so rapidly, and the lines between these two actions are so blurred, that it is not really possible to measure this. It is also likely that it varies depending on the species of hummingbird and on the individual, as well as other conditions such as how well fed it is, etc. However, hummingbirds do have extraordinary endurance: as an example, the ruby-throated hummingbird can fly around 900 miles without a break when it migrates, indicating that it is likely capable of hovering for long periods.
The hovering ability of other birds will be dependent on the conditions they are flying in. As soon as the headwind drops or decreases, they will have to adjust or will lose their ability to hover entirely. However, if the wind stays steady, they should be able to hover for about as long as they can fly for – which will vary according to the species.
It’s possible that we may one day be better able to measure how long birds can sustain their hovering, but at present, there is no answer to this question. It is too heavily based on the conditions and the kind of bird.
The answer to the question “can birds hover?” is not particularly straightforward, because it is complicated by the fact that most birds can hover in a headwind. However, only hummingbirds can achieve a true hover, with their unique wing movement setting them apart from all others and giving them superior control in the air. Birds that commonly use the wind hovering technique include kestrels, ospreys, goshawks, eagles, merlins, falcons, and buzzards.