The Beauty of Flight (S.E.#2)

Lately in my Bio 201 class, I have been learning about feathers and flight. I never realized just how spectacular wings could be until taking this course. There are many different functions of a bird’s wings. For example, birds can use them to help catch prey, for warmth, during migration, to protect their young, for balance, in making calls, powered flight, in mating rituals, and so much more.

Of all these functions, I am most intrigued by how, even though all birds have wings, there are multiple types of flight. These include: gliding, soaring, flapping, hovering, and subaqueous flying.


Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology  

Gliding is the least effortful type of flight. With wings outstretched, birds glide by lowering their altitude, catching updrafts, and making use of changes in the strength of the wind. However, like the Swallow-tailed Kite in the video above, gliding is usually not sustained for long periods of time. Albatrosses, Condors, Vultures, Eagles, and Storks are also known for their gliding.


Courtesy of the American Bald Eagle Foundation (ABEF)

While similar to gliding, soaring is more effortful, as it involves actively making use of wind, updrafts, and air currents. Two examples of soaring include thermal soaring and dynamic soaring. Some land birds such as the Bald Eagles in the video above, use rising thermal air currents to help them climb higher into the air. This upward circling is a very slow and time consuming maneuver. Dynamic soaring, on the other hand, is more common in sea birds, as it involves gaining speed through turning and climbing up into the wind. Instead of just continually soaring upward, this kinetic energy is also used to turn and travel downwind.


Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

When most people think of birds in flight, they probably picture the flapping of a bird. This type of flight is the most effortful type. Many birds, such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk in the video above, make use of larger and heavier muscles that use more energy for the continuous flapping needed for their flight. Compared to the other types of flight, this type enables birds to attain faster speeds in a shorter amount of time. It can be useful when speeding up to catch prey, to escape from predators, and for fast take-offs.


Courtesy of Stanford University

Of course, when most people think of hovering, they immediately picture a Hummingbird hovering over a flower with its remarkably fast wingbeats. The main function of hovering is to maintain balance while remaining stable in one spot. As seen in the video above, the mechanics of hovering involve the wingtips making a figure-8 motion. Despite being associated with Hummingbirds, hovering is also seen in other birds such as the Storm-Petrel. This seabird hovers and keeps its balance by keeping its feet in the water.

Subaqueous Flying

Courtesy of National Geographic 

The concept of flight is not restricted to the air. What about flightless birds, such as the penguins seen in the video above? They still use flight abilities, just not in the air. Instead, they simulate flight underwater when they propel themselves after their prey by beating their wings. This subaqueous flying is also seen in seabirds that are non-flightless. For example, the Short-tailed Shearwater is also capable of a fast pursuit of fish underwater.

For more examples of birds in flight click here.


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