Birds Flying | 17 Interesting things to know

Birds have always fascinated us. Be it their colorful plumage, intricate songs, amazing courtship delays, or stunning diversity- it has been a subject of intense study. But the most fascinating topic has been birds flying. We have always wondered, ‘How birds fly?’ 

Intro Video - Backtobirds
Intro Video - Backtobirds

Thankfully, the mystery has been solved to a great extent today. In this write-up, we would try to demystify the art and unravel a few interesting facts via the common FAQs. Stay Touted! 

Physics of a Bird’s Flight 

Birds have an eclectic combination of strength and lightweight that enables them to fly, despite being heavier than air. Apart from wings and being lightweight, they have a streamlined and rigid structure that enables them to fly. They are able to superbly manage all the four forces of flight i.e., weight, lift, drag, and thrust. Let’s break down the physics of a bird’s ability to fly.  

Related Read: Do Birds Get Tired Of Flying | How Long Can Birds Fly Without Stopping?

Physical features 

From the body structure to varied other physical features, birds have unique characteristics that help them fly. Foremost, their skeleton has a lattice-like structure. The bones have a honeycomb shape filled with air hollows to make them lighter but stronger. This reduces the overall weight significantly and makes them lightweight. Moreover, they are rigid and enable firm attachments of the powerful flight muscles.  

A single ovary instead of two also helps reduce body weight. An enlarged breastbone called the sternum provides more power to wings for a stronger force of thrust. 

All birds have a streamlined-shaped body. They make flight easy by reducing drag and friction in the air.  

Instead of the normal and heavy jaws with teeth, they have the toothless beak whose tapered point easily slices through the air with the least resistance. The smooth curve of the bird’s body further helps move the bulk forward. The drag is further reduced by the birds tucking their legs and feet while flying.  

Related Read: Bird Poop | Is Bird Poop Good Luck? Benefits, Pro’s & Cons With Interesting Facts

Body activities  

 The bird’s internal makeup is also intended to help them fly better. They have a higher body temperature that helps the muscles move more quickly. It also increases the efficiency of both the circulatory and the respiratory system to better support the massive effort needed to fly.

The metabolic rate of the birds is also significantly higher to give them energy faster for flight.  

Feathers 

Feathers not only provide a colorful covering to the bird’s body but also form an important element in their flight. Aerodynamically shaped, each feather is precisely positioned such that it can easily adjust the airflow over and around the bird’s wings and body.

Few key feathers can also be adjusted for better steering through the air. The tail feathers function as a rudder to help in broad movements. Cumulatively, it makes flight easy.  

Wings 

You cannot speak of bird’s flight and not talk about their wings. They are thicker at the front compared to the back and more curved across the top than underneath. This shape helps the air to move more quickly over the long surface of the upper wing and more slowly on the shorter surface below the wing.

It results in a disparity of airspeed, leading to lower air pressure above the wing and stronger pressure below. This creates the lift that raises the wings and helps the bird propel higher.  

The motion of the wings is also designed to help them fly effortlessly.  

Leg power 

Some birds get the initial thrust for flight by using their powerful legs. It is obtained from the first leap that the bird takes to jump into flight. Likewise, you can often see some waterfowl using their strong legs and webbed feet to build speed across the water surface to take off into flight.  

Air conditions 

Apart from their traits, birds also take advantage of air conditions to fly better. They change their flight behavior according to air currents, wind and air temperature, and other conditions to fly more easily.  

17 Interesting Things to Know About Bird’s Flight 

Now that we know about the physics of flight let’s walk through 17 interesting things about how birds fly.  

1. How birds fly? 

Birds utilize all the above-mentioned traits to fly. They fly by flapping their wings which are shaped like an airfoil. The force for the first upward and forward motion is obtained with the massive chest muscles pulling the wings down. These are about ten times larger than the muscles that pull back the wings up.

The flapping creates a disparity of air pressure. The higher pressure is above the wing and lower air pressure below the wings. The disparity creates a thrust that helps the birds glide upward and forward.  

2. Can birds fly in the rain? 

Most birds can fly in the rain but only for a short duration. The feathers of the bird have an oil coating that is secreted from their preen gland. This makes their feather waterproof and enables them to fly for short distances.  

After some time, the oil might wash off and wet the feathers. It makes flying difficult. Moreover, the rain fills the air pockets underneath their feathers with air. It affects both their ability to fly and even body temperature. Sometimes, it even causes hypothermia.  

Rain also causes a drop in air pressure that makes flying difficult for birds. If birds fly through this low pressure, they need to put much more effort than ordinarily required. Given that birds prefer to preserve their energy by perching in a dry area and allow rain to stop before flying to their destination. 

3. What birds can fly in the rain? 

Most birds can fly only for a short distance. But many might take a water bath in the rain. Ducks, though love to waddle in the rain and are often seen flying during the rain. It loves rain and can stay in it for hours playing.  

4. Which birds cannot fly? 

While most birds can fly, there exists a group of birds that cannot fly. In general, it is the big birds that do not have the ability to fly. Instead, they can run and walk extremely fast. However, there are a few small birds also that cannot fly.  

Today, we know of 60 species of birds that cannot fly. Few examples of it are penguin, steamer duck, Weka, ostrich, kiwi, kakapo, takahe, cassowary, inaccessible island rail (smallest flightless bird still existing today), flightless cormorant, Titicaca grebe, Campbell teal, Guam rail, etc.  

5. Which birds fly south for the winter? 

Many birds migrate from one region to another, primarily for food and nesting locations. Most birds of the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward and move south again when winter approaches. 

In general, most birds of far northern regions like Canada and Scandinavia fly south for the winter. Geese and approximately more than half of 650 species of migratory North American breeding birds fly to the south during the winter.  

6. Which birds can fly high? 

Generally, birds fly low under 500 feet. A higher altitude than this exposes them to risks of higher winds, exposure to the sharp vision of hawks, etc. But few species fly at higher altitudes, especially when they are migrating. The usual range is 2,000 to 5,000 feet and then even higher.  

The highest-flying bird known is Ruppell’s griffon vulture that flies at an altitude of 37000 feet. 

Other migratory birds known to fly really high are: 

  • White stork that flies at a maximum altitude of 16,000 feet.  
  • Bar-tailed godwit has a maximum flying height of 20,000 feet. 
  • Andean condor with a maximum flying altitude of 21,300 feet. 
  • Alpine chough, whose maximum flying height is 26,500 feet.  
  • Bar-headed goose flies at a maximum height of 27,825 feet. 
  • Common crane with a maximum flying height of 33,000 feet. 

7. Why do birds fly in V shape? 

Most often, a group of migratory birds is spotted flying together in a V shape. According to scientists, it helps them conserve energy and attain the best aerodynamic advantage. Studies found that when flying in a V-shape, the birds at the back of the shape flapped less often and had slower heart rates. 

In a V-shape, the birds follow a precise positioning, I.e., each bird is a meter behind and a meter off to the side upfront. The bird in the lead flaps its wings to push a vortex of air directly behind downwards. It is called a downwash.  

It results in a pressure difference. The air below the wings gains a higher pressure than the air pressure above the wings. Going by the law, the air with higher pressure moves to the region with the air of lower pressure. This flow of air in the upward direction is called upwash.  

The bird behind the bird creating the upwash reaps the benefit. Since the upwash is already pushing the bird up, it has to spend less energy. This way, upwash force is passed to each bird, and they all need to put in far less energy that helps them fly long distances.  

Flying in the V shape is also believed to facilitate better orientation and communication amongst migratory birds.   

8. Which birds fly in V formation? 

Not all migratory birds fly in a V formation. Usually, significantly large birds like cranes, pelicans, and geese fly in this formation. When flying, each bird maintains their specific position and flap their wings at the same speed. 

9. Do birds fly at night? 

Most birds are diurnal and prefer to sleep during the night. Hence, they do not fly at night. However, nocturnal birds like the owl, nighthawks, frogmouths, and night-herons are highly active during the night and might be spotted flying.  

Migratory birds like the sparrows and thrushes can also be seen flying at night when they migrate south as it helps them avoid predators.  

You can also see a diurnal bird flying at night. It is a rare scenario and often happens when their roost is disturbed, and they are facing some kind of danger.  

10. Do birds fly in circles? 

Yes, birds do fly in circles.  

Few birds like pigeons fly in a circle because of their unique ability to take advantage of the weather phenomenon, thermals. Known as updrafts, these are naturally occurring rising columns of warm air formed due to uneven heating of air near the ground.  

Thermals provide a natural lift to the birds. Consequently, birds fly in circles to remain within the thermal and conserve their energy used during the flight. 

11. Can birds fly backward? 

Birds cannot fly backward. The only exception is the hummingbird that can not only fly backward but also upside down.  

Hummingbirds have unique wings that are different from the wings of all other birds. They have a unique ball and socket joint at the shoulder, which enables the bird to rotate its wings 180 degrees in all directions. Their long, narrow, and tapered shaped wings help them move more quickly and easily through the air. Furthermore, the joints are very close to their tiny bodies, thereby allowing the wings to tilt and pivot.  

All these help the hummingbird to change directions at will and fly anywhere they want, including backward.  

12. Can birds fly in the stratosphere? 

Most birds fly only in the troposphere region of the atmosphere. However, few birds like swans, cranes, and vultures are known to fly in the stratosphere region also. Due to it, all these birds are characterized as stratospheric.  

13. Can birds sleep while flying? 

Recent studies have established that birds can indeed sleep while flying. The brain activity of a species of large seabirds, the great frigatebirds, was studied. The bird is known to fly for weeks non-stop over the ocean in search of food.  

Using electroencephalogram recordings of the bird when on a flight for ten days, it was found that it slept in a unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS). It means that the bird slept with only one hemisphere of the brain at a time. Due to it, they would sleep with one eye closed, and the other looked out for potential danger. 

Studies also showed them exhibiting bihemispheric sleep, i.e., sleep with both eyes closed even though on a flight. However, it was for a very short period. They spend just about 3% of their entire flight duration sleeping. It is approximately 42 minutes per day.  

14. Would a bird fly in zero gravity? 

Birds can indeed fly in zero gravity as that is just a medium for the birds to fly. They are not connected to the bird’s flying. However, they remain confused in such a situation because the situation there is more like lifting up instead of flying.  

15. Would a bird fly in space? 

A bird cannot fly but can survive in space.  

Space is much like a vacuum. Now, birds fly using Bernoulli’s principle, just like an airplane. They can fly because of the difference in air pressure above and below the wings that provide them their lift. It would not be possible to generate any lift in the absence of air which means no air pressure difference. Given that, a bird would not fly in space or vacuum.  

16. Would a bird fly on Mars? 

The thin air of Mars makes it impossible for most heavy birds to fly on Mars. Birds like a hen would fly but would fall down. Hummingbirds would be able to fly on Mars but only for a short time. Moreover, the birds would die there because of the lack of oxygen.  

But when a Mars-like controlled atmospheric condition combined with oxygen was created inside a large dome, it was found that birds flew better. This is because the gravitation on Mars is about one-third of that of Earth. 

17. How long can birds fly without stopping? 

It depends on the birds. Alpine swifts are recorded to fly for six months continuously with no rest, while the great frigate bird can fly non-stop for two months. This behavior is particularly noticed in migratory birds. 

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