Tag Archives: tropical

Hummingbird miracle

We feed hummingbirds.

It’s an easy thing to do and provides hours of viewing pleasure. I got to thinking about the mechanics of a hummingbird and had to wonder about some of the factors that go into allowing such a creature the ability to do what they do.

For reference, a human eye-blink takes about 1/3 of a second, ~300 milliseconds of time. And this, it turns out, is about the reaction time of a human. BANG! goes the starting gun and 1/3 second later we’re off the block.


(Creative Commons image)

For a hummingbird, this reaction time is cut by about 100 fold. Within three to five milliseconds, a hummingbird can interpret an oncoming obstacle, a branch say, process this image as a threat, send a signal to its wing muscles, adjust its flight and avert disaster.

There are a few aspects that make this possible. One is its brain and ocular processing. A hummingbird has special processing which is especially evolved to instantly identify oncoming threats. How a thing changes observable size — the closer the bigger — is the trick there. Another, more important, is the creature’s size. Electrical signals, traveling through neurons, takes time. The shorter the distance, the faster the reaction. If a hummingbird were the size of a crow or eagle, or human, the distance to send a “TURN RIGHT OR DIE!” command would grow and take a proportionally longer time. Additionally, its size constrains its weight which being slight, allows it to instantly change course — less weight, less inertia, easier vector changes.

We don’t often think about milliseconds in nature, but the hummingbird personifies such measurement. It’s truly a wonderment of evolution, a miraclulous biological machine.