Hummingbirds Ability to Hover Depends on Background Movement

Dec 10, 2014 07:03 AM EST | Matt Mercuro

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Even skillful flyers like hummingbirds have issues sometimes.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia were able to show in a new study that hummingbirds had problems hovering above a source of nectar when presented with visual stimuli. This means that they were distracted and not able to completely use their visual processing muscles when presented with continuously moving images.

Scientists demonstrated this by introducing hummingbirds to a small clear feeding tube full of nectar. The tube was placed in front of a white wall, where researchers could project a number of different images.

Still images didn't bother the bird's ability to hover and feed at the same time, but they were disrupted when a moving spiral was projected onto the wall.

The research was published on December 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study was conducted by researchers, Benjamin Goller and Douglas Altshuler, from the University of British Columbia.

The image apparently tricked the hummingbirds, causing them to back off from the feeding tube only to try to hover and feed again without success.

"Despite the urge to feed, the birds seemed unable to adapt to the moving images," study author and zoologist Benny Goller said in a press release.

"It suggests the hummingbirds' visual motion detection network can over-ride even a critical behavior like feeding," the author added.

Normally hummingbirds fly so well they outperform a tiny helicopter, with a hovering capacity that is 20 percent more efficient, in comparison. The researchers believe that their findings will open new investigations into how visual information is used by flying birds, in the brain and during free behavior.

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