Study: motion distracts hummingbird hovering skills

Their ability to hover and feed at the same time was disrupted when a moving spiral was projected onto the wall near their feeder.
By Brooks Hays   |   Dec. 9, 2014 at 4:22 PM
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- Leonardo da Vinci famously conceived of the helicopter before it was even a mechanical possibility. His inspiration, of course, was the hummingbird. Artists and engineers have long been enamored with the petite flier's graceful levitation and fighter pilot-like maneuvering.

But it turns out, hummingbirds' hovering ability isn't without flaws: They get distracted, confused and thrown off-balance by moving images.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of British Columbia were able to show that hummingbirds had trouble hovering precisely above a source of nectar when presented with visual stimuli. In other words, they were distracted and unable to fully flex their visual processing muscles when subjected to continuously moving images.

The scientists demonstrated this by first introducing hummingbirds to a small clear feeding tube full of nectar. The tube was positioned in front of a white wall, where researchers could project various images. Whereas still images didn't bother the hummingbirds, their ability to hover and feed at the same time was disrupted when a moving spiral was projected onto the wall.

The image seemed to trick the hummingbird into thinking its hovering had gone out of whack, causing the birds to back off from the feeding tube only to try to hover and feed again and 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 research was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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