The Physics of Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air
Lesson Overview

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this lesson: (PDF) (RTF)


TOPIC/SUBJECT MATTER: Physics/Physical Science

TIME ALLOTMENT: 4 class periods (1 class period per learning activity)


Hummingbirds are truly remarkable creatures, with spectacular abilities that go beyond the limits of what other birds can do.  For many years, the intricacies of hummingbird behavior were beyond human comprehension; however, with new high-speed cameras and video technology, scientists and researchers can now see what makes hummingbirds so special.  It’s not magic – it’s physics.

The Physics of Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air is comprised of four mini-lesson plans – each designed to be completed in one class period – introducing and explaining four different concepts found in the high school physics curriculum.   Through the four activities, students will consider Newton’s Third Law of Motion as it relates to hummingbirds’ extraordinary flight, observe hummingbirds’ state of torpor as an introduction to thermodynamic processes, examine the origins of sound with unique “chirp” of the Anna’s hummingbird, and explore properties of visible light through hummingbirds’ dazzling iridescent feathers.

The four learning activities in this lesson are not designed to be used over four consecutive class periods; rather they are to be used individually at appropriate points in the curriculum.  Each activity will be preceded by notes and recommendations for classroom implementation.


Video from episode “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air”

1. Flight Patterns
This clip explains how hovering gives humming birds unique flight capabilities.

2. The Heat is On
This clip explains how hummingbirds’ torpor allows them to conserve heat and energy.

3. Making Waves
This clips explores the unique “chirp” of the Anna’s hummingbird.

4. The Light Fantastic
This clip describes the colors produced by iridescent hummingbird feathers.

Access the streaming and downloadable video at the Video Segments Page.


NOVA: Getting Airborne

This web interactive allows students to explore how different wing types are affected by the forces of lift and drag.


National Science Education Standards, Grades 9 – 12

Physical Science

Content Standard B


  • Objects change their motion only when a net force is applied. Laws of motion are used to calculate precisely the effects of forces on the motion of objects. The magnitude of the change in motion can be calculated using the relationship F = ma, which is independent of the nature of the force. Whenever one object exerts force on another, a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction is exerted on the first object.


[See Content Standard C (grades 9-12)]

  • The total energy of the universe is constant. Energy can be transferred by collisions in chemical and nuclear reactions, by light waves and other radiations, and in many other ways. However, it can never be destroyed. As these transfers occur, the matter involved becomes steadily less ordered.


[See Content Standard D (grades 9-12)]

  • Waves, including sound and seismic waves, waves on water, and light waves, have energy and can transfer energy when they interact with matter.

Life Science

Content Standard C


[See Unifying Concepts and Processes]

  • All matter tends toward more disorganized states. Living systems require a continuous input of energy to maintain their chemical and physical organizations. With death, and the cessation of energy input, living systems rapidly disintegrate.


For each student:

For each pair or group of 3-4 students:

  • Hand boiler (available from science classroom suppliers
  • Pair of scissors
  • Soap bubble solution
  • Soap bubble wand

For the class:


Students will be able to:

  • Identify how Newton’s Third Law of Motion relates to flight
  • Explain and understand thermodynamic processes
  • Describe the origin of sound and sound waves
  • List and explain the characteristics of light waves that contribute to iridescence


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Make copies of the student organizers for each student in the class.

Obtain hand boilers for students.  If these are not already available in your school, you can find them at many science classroom supply outlets.

Obtain soap bubble solution and bubble wands for students.  Ready-made containers are available in many stores, or you can mix your own soap bubble solution (1 part dish soap to 10 parts water) and create your own wands (bend a paper clip or pipe cleaner into the appropriate shape).

Bookmark the websites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.