Hummingbird Navigation System

Hummingbird Navigation System

The flying ability of hummingbirds is an exciting example of design in living things. Hummingbirds can move with remarkable speed, hover, fly in all directions, including backward and upside down, and even do flips. Scientists have exhaustively studied their wing shape, attempting to copy it for possible aircraft design. Not only is the design of their wings and muscles amazing, but recent studies show that scientists don’t fully understand the hummingbird navigation system.

Many animals use “pattern velocity,” which depends on visual cues, to adjust their speed and position while in motion. Researchers tried to confuse the hummingbird navigation system by giving them false visual cues. They projected moving patterns onto the walls of a tunnel the birds were flying through to reach a bird feeder. The birds based their flight commands on the projected patterns when hovering or moving up or down. However, when flying forward, they seemed to have an internal speedometer that did not depend on the visual cues.

If you have watched them fly in a storm, through a tree, or through other obstacles, you have seen the amazing hummingbird navigation in operation. A hummingbird’s complex brain design enables it to switch rapidly from visual clues to its own motor responses. This research on hummingbird navigation can help improve drone flight technology. Scientists have discovered much in the design of living things to enhance human technology. To believe that these apparent designs are merely blind mechanistic chance requires a leap of faith that has little evidential support.

In Job 38-39, God challenges Job with a list of mysteries of creation. That list includes questions about birds, including ostriches, hawks, and eagles (Job 39:13, 26-27). Today, we look at birds all over this planet and find that the hummingbird navigation system challenges our understanding, but we can wonder at its design and learn from it.

— John N. Clayton © 2024

Reference: Scientific American, April 2024, page 11.