Hummingbirds are amazing fliers. They fly forward at up to 26 miles per hour; they fly backward; they hover. They beat their wings 50 times a second, so all you see is a blur, with that enameled little body floating serenely in the middle. They are flight acrobats. They are flight artistes. How do they do that?
Rufous Hummingbird. Photo by M. LaBarbera
It helps that they are quite small. The amount of power that you can get out of your muscles increases as muscle mass (size) increases—bigger muscles, more power—but the amount of power increases less quickly than mass does. That is, if you double the size of the muscle, you get less than twice the amount of power out of it. This means that as an animal gets bigger, its ratio of muscle power to muscle mass decreases. An ant can carry enormous things for its size. A small bird can generate enough power with its muscles to hold its own body aloft and still in the air—to hover. A California Condor? Not so much. Hummingbirds’ small size means that they are, relative to their own body mass, very strong.
Small size is a Rufous Hummingbird’s secret weapon.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
Albatross spend most of their lives in flight. They forage in the open ocean, where food may be separated by many miles, and they head for islands only to breed. They have been documented making around-the-world trips in just 46 days (take that, Jules Verne!) and flying for weeks at an average speed of 950 km per day (Croxall et al. 2005). That’s 40 km per hour, so you could beat them in a car (if you could stay awake that long), but still!
I am awesome.
Photo by Tony Linde
How can an animal spend so much time in such fast flight? How do albatross not waste away and die from the sheer energetic effort?
Laughing Gulls in flight
Everything about avian morphology has been shaped by the requirements of flight. Flight is hard. Animals are heavy, being largely composed of water, and air is not dense; you have to work hard to generate any force by manipulating air. The problem for any flying animal is to be light yet powerful – and to still be a viable animal, capable of eating and storing energy and making babies. A hypothetical weak but extremely light animal – think an air-jellyfish – might be able to fly, but would probably starve. While the ocean is filled with floating particles that real jellyfish can catch simply by passively floating, the air is not so bountiful. (You could argue that web spiders filter-feed in air, but… all right, I don’t know if air-jellyfish are impossible. I think we’re getting off-topic here.)
Air-jellyfish wafting through a pink sunset.
(Or, Northeast Pacific sea nettle in an artistically-lit tank at the Shedd Aquarium.)
In any case, birds didn’t start out as light, thin, filmy creatures. They started out as small raptor-y dinosaurs. Natural selection acts only on the traits that are present: massive change to the shape of an organism is hard. (Not impossible! But comparatively rarer.) Birds started out with backbones, four limbs, a head, two eyes, etc., and they evolved flight from that initial morphology.
But how do you make a dinosaur that can fly? Dinosaurs are strong, yes, but they are heavy. Bones are heavy; muscle is heavy; fat is heavy; teeth are heavy.