Flying is an intriguing phenomenon impossible for humans to perform without aid, which is why it is so fascinating for us to see other creatures fly.
One might even wonder if birds are capable of flying upside-down.
There are many flying behaviors of birds that are not part of their regular flying patterns. Some birds are just very special and can perform tricks that other birds can’t.
Read on to find out which birds can fly upside-down and why do these birds do so.
What is Whiffling?
Whiffling is the act of decreasing the velocity of flight by briefly flying upside down and descending rapidly towards a targeted area.
Birds whiffle due to numerous reasons.
They may be running from a predator, trying to catch prey, performing a mating call, or combating strong winds.
Which birds can whiffle?
Following is a list of some of the birds that have been caught whiffling by observers and birdwatchers:
- Common Raven
- Bald Eagle
- American Avocet
- Northern Harrier and Marsh Harrier
- Harris Hawk
- Northern Mockingbird
- Terns (Black, Caspian, Common, Forster’s, Gull-Billed, Royal, Least, The Whole Bunch)
- American Golder Plover and Semi-palmated Plover
- Canada Goose
There aren’t many pictures available on the internet of birds whiffling due to the rarity of this behavior.
Most of the work is protected by photographers who don’t allow sharing of their work due to the magnificence of such a shot.
Can Hummingbirds Fly Upside-Down?
Hummingbirds have a rotator cuff that strengthens and supports their shoulder joint. This special feature of the hummingbird allows them to fly in any direction that they want.
Hummingbirds are able to twist their wings while they flap them. They form a figure 8 pattern with the unique movement of their wings.
They can change direction within a fraction of a second due to this rotator cuff.
Hummingbirds have been observed to fly upside-down to obtain nectar from flowers that are hanging face down.
You must’ve seen videos of hummingbirds feeding off flowers while flapping their wings while they’re completely inverted.
While most birds have strong muscles that allow them to exert force in forward flight, hummingbirds have specialized muscles that allow reversed flights as well.
Hummingbirds can even hover in the air! Interestingly, the flight of a hummingbird is closer to that of an insect than a bird.
Can Ravens Fly Upside-Down?
Ravens are highly intelligent, exceptionally skilled flyers.
Their flying behavior is akin to acrobatics and provides much inspiration for air shows.
Ravens can achieve an upside-down position by contorting their wings and lifting one wing, resulting in a flip much like that of a fighter jet in an air show.
Why Do Ravens Fly Upside-Down?
This is a common practice for ravens when they mate and display skills during courtship. They are the best upside-down fliers in the entire bird kingdom.
Following are a few reasons that a raven might fly upside down:
There has not been recorded evidence of this behavior because this display usually occurs high in the air and is difficult to capture even by powerful cameras.
It usually lasts only for a few seconds, and the bird uprights again. Although, there have been documented cases of ravens flying upside down for considerable distances.
Ravens may also lock talons with their mates when they fly upside down as a token of affection and a bonding ritual.
Apart from mating and courtship, ravens may also fly upside-down to assert dominance in the social hierarchy.
Ravens are not the friendliest or the most social birds. They quarrel skirmish over mates, territory, and even food.
They may also fly upside-down simply for fun! In the dusty mountains of Utah, ravens have been observed to ride on the gusts of thermal winds that travel upwards beside cliffs.
When they reach the top, ravens fall head-first, talons in the air to reach ground level, and repeat the fun all over again.
Young ravens are seen to drop sticks and dive to catch them mid-air. They repeat this behavior for fun and often play with sticks.
A report in Nature by A. Vedel Taning describes how he regularly observed ravens flying upside down in Iceland.
He reported that it is a commonplace thing to see birds fly upside-down in Iceland. There haven’t been many reported cases by other people to support or refute this claim.
The Bald Eagle Mating Ritual
Bald Eagles are one of the most fascinating creatures in the bird kingdom.
Their courtship is an astounding and breath-taking ritual. The couple locks together their talons and fall from a great height while forming what is called the death spiral.
The birds fall back first towards the ground while spinning extremely fast.
They unlock their talons just before hitting the ground and upright before they land. However, this behavior is more of a falling than flying.
Various birds use whiffling as an attacking technique. When threatened by another bird of prey, such as a hawk, a mockingbird may nosedive towards her nest to protect it.
This swooping motion allows maximum velocity and a display of power to ward off any predators.
The beak-first stance also allows the beak to be used as a weapon. With great velocity, the beak can enforce great damage to a trespasser.
Avoiding Collision While Foraging
Foraging is a hunting method that birds use to find food. There are various kinds of foraging techniques based on the type of food and the shape of the bird’s beak.
Flocking birds often forage together. There is an increased risk of collision during a flock due to the increased density and limited airspace.
Birds like the Dunlin may temporarily fly upside down when they try to avoid a collision with another bird in the flock.
In case a collision occurs, the birds’ whiffle to gain their balance and position themselves better in the flock.
Strong winds may increase the chances of collision. This behavior is especially observed near coastal areas due to strong coastal wind currents.
Geese whiffle in strange ways.
Their head remains in normal position while their body is twisted, flippers in the air. If you have observed flocks of geese, you may have seen them suddenly twist their bodies around during flight.
Ornithologists and amateur birdwatchers find this behavior particularly fascinating.
In areas where wildfowling is practiced and hunters actively gather to shoot for sport, geese may whiffle like this to create an erratic motion that allows them to quickly change their position to avoid getting shot.
The regular bird flight is slow and predictable but whiffling to confuse hunters and make movements more random and unpredictable.
The Physics behind Whiffling
Man has known flying for only the better part of a century, but nature has had millenniums to perfect it.
The maneuvers that birds pull and the excessive force of gravity that they can withstand are a testament to their exceptional capabilities.
From an evolutionary standpoint, whiffling is an asset that gives the bird an edge and allows it to outfox its predators.
And when it tries to hunt itself, it can get to the prey quicker and faster. Fortune favors the bold. The saying stands true when it comes to birds. The daring maneuvers are a weapon.
Humans have altered the ecosystem tremendously, making it necessary for most birds to migrate and alter their habitats to survive harsh environments.
As much as some birds may try, whiffling isn’t the kind of skill that can be learned by just about any bird.
Their aerodynamic body structure allows some birds this natural capability. It is heavily dependent on bone density and skeletal structure.
Much like airplane wingspan, similar physics plays a key role here. It is not necessary that the bigger the wingspan, the greater the capability.
At one point, the wingspan can be too great and can create a drag instead.
Generally, the birds with lightweight bones are better equipped for flight maneuvers. For instance, sparrow or hummingbirds are capable of pulling 360 times their body weight.
This means that they experience the force of gravity on their bodies 360 times more.
You may also see birds whiffling in synchronized formations that are more than just a beautiful display.
These birds are supposedly creating a phenomenon called slipstream, which is a steady backflow of air that birds behind can use to get extra lift without exerting any more power.
This exercise of load-bearing goes around the herd as they keep alternating positions.
Nature continues to fascinate and inspire humans.
No matter how technologically advanced humans become, they will always turn to their origin to find raw beauty.
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