Flying in the rain: hovering performance of Anna's hummingbirds under varied precipitation

Victor Manuel Ortega-Jimenez, Robert Dudley

Abstract

Flight in rain represents a greater challenge for smaller animals because the relative effects of water loading and drop impact are greater at reduced scales given the increased ratios of surface area to mass. Nevertheless, it is well known that small volant taxa such as hummingbirds can continue foraging even in extreme precipitation. Here, we evaluated the effect of four rain intensities (i.e. zero, light, moderate and heavy) on the hovering performance of Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna) under laboratory conditions. Light-to-moderate rain had only a marginal effect on flight kinematics; wingbeat frequency of individuals in moderate rain was reduced by 7 per cent relative to control conditions. By contrast, birds hovering in heavy rain adopted more horizontal body and tail positions, and also increased wingbeat frequency substantially, while reducing stroke amplitude when compared with control conditions. The ratio between peak forces produced by single drops on a wing and on a solid surface suggests that feathers can absorb associated impact forces by up to approximately 50 per cent. Remarkably, hummingbirds hovered well even under heavy precipitation (i.e. 270 mm h−1) with no apparent loss of control, although mechanical power output assuming perfect and zero storage of elastic energy was estimated to be about 9 and 57 per cent higher, respectively, compared with normal hovering.

  • Received June 4, 2012.
  • Accepted June 26, 2012.
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