Can Birds Swim? | What Birds Swim Underwater?

Many bird species are found near aquatic habitats. They depend on the water bodies for their food. Some birds are seen floating on the surface and even diving into the water. 

Can Birds Swim?

Some bird species are capable of swimming in water because of certain adaptations. Webbed feet, waterproof feathers, and the ability to dive underwater to catch prey are some of these adaptations.

These unique adaptations help them to survive in water in different climates, whether it’s the icy cold waters of Antarctica or the salty world’s seas.   

A diverse range of bird species inhabits aquatic environments. The birds spent most of their time swimming either on the surface or deep underwater to catch prey. Aquatic birds’ feet help them to propel in freshwater. 

Following are some of the bird species that can swim :

  • Ducks
  • Swans 
  • Screamers
  • Geese
  • Storks
  • Kingfishers
  • Loons
  • Flamingos
  • Penguins
  • Cormorants
  • Auks
  • Pelicans
  • Terns
  • Gannets
  • Anhingas
  • Dippers

Birds that can’t swim lack these features and hence, are territorial. They include grouse, pheasants, junglefowl, quail, turkeys, prairie-chickens, partridges, sage-grouse, ptarmigan, bobwhites, and guineafowl.

What Birds Swim Underwater?

Many aquatic birds such as penguins, pelicans, terns, and anhingas swim underwater to catch prey below the surface. They use different techniques for this purpose depending on their adaptations. Following are some of the other birds that swim underwater:

  • Cormorants
  • Loons
  • Grebes
  • Dippers
  • Kingfishers
  • Gannets 

Some of the birds have small and muscular wings, solid bones, and short feathers which help them to swim underwater and remain submerged for a long duration. A great example of such underwater birds is the penguin.

These birds lower their wings in the downstroke and raise them on the upstroke. Thus, by changing the angle of the outer edge of their wings, they carry the bird in the forward direction. 

Some flying Birds, that also swim underwater or dive, are buoyant due to their hollow bones, several air sacs, and air trapped under their wings. They dive from a suitable height which generates momentum. This momentum helps in carrying them below the surface.

Other underwater birds, such as grebes, force out maximum air out of their plumage and empty their air sacs to swim at different depths or to submerge.

Can small birds swim?

Small aquatic birds, generally, cannot swim as their bodies are not well-equipped for it. They are the wading birds that utilize their legs to walk through water and beaks to pick food. 

Wading birds are found mostly near shallow-water habitats, so they do not sink. They find their food with the help of their feet by stirring the water. 

These birds have flexible necks that help them in reaching the food. Examples of the small wading birds are plovers and sandpipers.

Can Birds Breathe Underwater?

Birds, unlike fishes, cannot breathe underwater as they lack a proper respiratory system that helps them in it.

Aquatic birds hold their breaths when diving into the water and then swim back to the surface to breathe again. The period up to which a bird holds its breath may vary depending on the species.

But, how do birds manage to hold their breath underwater? 

Birds that dive into the water have unique adaptations that help them hold and store oxygen for long. Their blood volume is greater than normal which helps them to store more oxygen in the form of oxyhemoglobin. 

The better buffering arrangement helps them to collect more carbon dioxide. Thus, they do not feel stimulated by carbon dioxide buildup to breathe. 

Can All Birds Float In Water?

Some of the bird species, such as ducks, geese, and swans, that have hollow bones and are lightweight, can float in water due to their buoyancy. But the other bird species, such as ostriches, are not buoyant and thus, cannot float.

The birds that float in water do so because of some biological adaptations. One of the adaptations is the coating of feathers with an oily substance secreted by a uropygial gland. This makes their feathers water-resistant or hydrophobic.

Another such adaptation that helps birds float is the interlocking feathers. Air gets trapped between the interlocked feathers and the skin. Thus, increase their buoyancy. They also have numerous air sacs that store air and provide extreme buoyancy.

How Can Birds Swim In Cold Water?

Birds can swim in cold water because of the various means that help them to maintain their internal body temperature and to preserve body heat. The layering of excessive down feathers covered by waterproof plumage and usage of ‘countercurrent exchange method’ are some of those means.

These birds layer their bodies with thick coats of feathers that help in insulation. But certain body parts that remain bare, such as beaks and feet, are kept warm by the countercurrent exchange method.    

Birds have multiple levels of the weblike connections of arteries, veins, and capillaries throughout their beaks and feet. Due to the ‘countercurrent’ mechanism, when the heart delivers warm blood via arteries, the heat gets transferred to the venous system carrying cool blood and vice versa.

This helps them to maintain a low, constant temperature in the cold water and to minimize the loss of heat. Also, the muscles of the waterbirds are closely snuggled to the body, thus providing insulation.

Following are some of the birds that swim in cold water:

  • Penguins
  • Skuas
  • Petrels
  • Ducks
  • gulls

What Are The Birds That Can Swim But Not Fly?

Some bird species can swim but not fly. The buildup of their body is more suitable or adapted to the aquatic environment. They lack features that help birds to fly such as hollow bones, wide wings, flight feathers, and slender and lightweight bodies.

These birds depend on the aquatic habitat for their food and spend most of their time in it. Their bodies are designed in ways that help them to swim in the water. The features that help them swim are their webbed feet and small wings.

Following are the birds that can swim but not fly:

  • Penguins
  • Steamer duck
  • Weka
  • Kiwi
  • Anhinga
  • Moa-nalo
  • Giant Hawaii goose
  • New Zealand geese
  • Great auk
  • Flightless cormorant

Related Questions:

Can Birds Drown?

Birds, especially the young ones, can drown in water because of their inability to manage with wet feathers. But birds usually do not drown often.

A deepwater habitat can drown birds. For example, songbirds are unable to swim in the water and easily drown.

Which Bird Is Fastest While Swimming Underwater?

The fastest swimming bird is the Gentoo Penguins. They swim at the average speed of 22 mph. The speed of this bird is equal to the speed of the fastest sea turtle. They have a long tail that works like a fish’s fin and helps them to swim smoothly. These adaptations help them to survive in extremely cold climates.            


Birds are not only great fliers but some birds are also great swimmers. They have abilities to swim on surfaces and underwater, in both fresh-water and saline water environments. However, small birds are the wading birds and do not swim. 

Their body build-up makes them suitable to even float on water. Many of the aquatic birds have adaptations to sustain themselves in different extremities such as cold water. Some birds can only swim but not fly. The adaptations help birds to survive in aquatic habitats.  

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