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How Birds Fly

 

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The Wonder of Flying


Great Egret Flying Over Mediterranean East Shore, Magan Michael, Israel (Nikon D800)

Nature granted birds the characteristics necessary for flight: hollow light bones, a variety of feathers that serve different functions during flight, wings that provide them with a large surface area compared to their size and weight, and strong muscles and the ability to utilize them to fly.

 

 

It would seem that everything in the bird’s system is geared to minimize body weight in order to help them lift themselves up. The body of the birds is light. There is no urinary bladder and the toothless bill and the legs add very little to their weight.

Flying requires a great deal of energy. At the same time the birds need to keep their body weight to a minimum. Therefore, they eat food that is rich in proteins like gains and seeds or meat, each according to its type. They digest the food quickly, get rid of the waste and store the excess in their fat glands.


Cranes in Hula Valley, flying from their feeding ground to their resting place

 

Birds have different types of feathers that are responsible for different functions. A rough classification differentiates between down feathers and contour feathers.

  • Down feathers – soft and airy, these form the coats of the young and provide a soft thick layer which lies beneath contour feathers of adults.  The down feathers are very efficient insulators, preventing loss of body heat in order to protect the birds’ relatively high body temperatures, averaging approximately 41 degrees centigrade (106 degrees Fahrenheit).
  •  

Down Feather of Birds
Down Feather (Panasonic DMC-TZ20)

     

  • Contour feathers – give the bird’s body its shape. They have hook type endings that catch the neighboring row of feathers, thus creating a wide solid surface when needed in flight. Functionally there are ‘oar-like’ feathers (remiges) of the wings and steering feathers of the tail (rectrices) which, together, regulate flight.

 

 

Bird’s feathers suffer from wear and tear. They are essential for their ability to fly and birds therefore very meticulously take care of them. They dedicate a great deal of time to cleaning and coating them with a material that is produced by an oil gland that is found beside their tail.

 

Flamingo Cleaning Neck Feathers
Flamingo Cleaning Neck Feathers  (Canon SX40 HS)

 

Types of Bird Flight

Rowing – flight that is based on strong wing activity up and then down and back in a way that allows the bird to achieve elevation force while progressing foreword.


Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 1 (Nikon D800)

 

Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 2
Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 2 (Nikon D800)

 

Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 3
Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 3 (Nikon D800)

 

Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 4
Grey Heron - Rowing Flight Technique - 4 (Nikon D800)

 

Hovering – flight that is based on very fast wing flapping without advancing. This type of flight requires a great deal of energy and is suited for some small birds only. The hummingbird and the Northern Orange-tufted Sunbird (Cinnyris oseus) (Palestine sunbird) use it while drinking the honeydew from flowers. The pied kingfisher, in the picture below, hovers while looking for his prey.

Pied Kingfish - Hovering Flight Technique
Pied Kingfisher - Hovering Flight Technique (Nikon D800)

 

Soaring – a form of flight that uses the aid of the air streams to advance rather than the rowing of the wings. This type of flight is typical of big birds. They have a large wing span and use streams of hot air that are rising, thus investing minimal energy to elevate themselves with it.

Griffon Vulture - Soaring Flight Technique
Griffon Vulture - Soaring Flight Technique (Nikon D800)

 

In the video below you see pelicans using the thermal updraft (rising hot air) to reach an altitude from which they will start their journey onward to their destination.

 

Gliding – during this type of flight, the bird gradually looses height, gaining speed due to gravity. The bird can control its speed by adjusting the angles of the wings, for example when landing. During gliding the bird’s wings are opened half of its span.

 

Soaring birds use the soaring and gliding techniques alternately, as an economic tool for advancing. A bird that reached to a high altitude by soaring can glide for long distances without flapping its wings, thus saving a great deal of energy.


Pelican - Gliding Flight Technique (Nikon D800)

Griffon Vulture - Using Soaring and Gliding Flight Techniques Alternately
Griffon Vulture - Using Soaring and Gliding Flight Techniques Alternately (Nikon D800)

 

Stooping (Diving) – a form of flight when the bird quickly descends, practically diving toward its prey. This is done with wings pulled back against the bird’s body.

 

 

V-Shaped Flight Formation

Flocks of birds tend to fly long distances in a V-shaped formation. Each bird positions itself a bit above and at the side of the bird that is in front of it. Such formation allows all the birds in the flock, apart from the leading bird, to use the turbulences of air created by the birds in front. These turbulences create a lifting force that helps the birds during flight by enabling them to save vital energy during the long journey. The position of the leading bird is taken by another once it is tired.

How it works?

When the bird flaps its wings the airflow over the top of the wing is pushed down; in aeronautics it is known as downwash. The air at the wing's tips on the other hand is accelerated upwards in a circular motion around the wing and is known as upwash. The bird behind uses the lifting force of the upwash vortex as an extra source of energy that keeps itself up.

Research shows that a bird will also adjust the timing of its wing beat to stay in the upwash area created by the wingtips of the bird ahead of it, thus maximizing the benefits of the elevating force.

 

Taking Off and Landing

 

Taking off and landing consumes a great deal of energy, especially from the big birds. They need to create enough air flow above the wings to be lifted. Pelicans and flamingos for example, when they are in the water, often start taking off by running on water, thus, gaining speed and creating the air flow needed. Some who live in mountains and cliffs drop themselves off the edge to gain speed and then fly; others begin taking off against the wind in order to use the power of the on-coming air stream to lift them.

Egret - Landing 1
Great Egret - Landing 1  (Nikon D800)

Egret - Landing 2
Great Egret - Landing 2  (Nikon D800)

 



 

 

Landing in Water

Landing in water is an easier and safer method for many of the big birds. They use their feet against the water, almost skiing for a short distance, before they stop. This, together with use of their wings and the angle of the body, helps them to create maximum friction with the air and water in order to reduce their speed when landing.

Wading Birds - Landing in Water 1
Great Egret and Grey Heron - Landing in Water 1 (Nikon D800)

Wading Birds - Landing in Water 2
Great Egret - Landing in Water 2 (Nikon D800)

 

Taking off in Water


Pelicans - Taking Off in Water 1 (Nikon D800)

 

Pelicans - Taking Off in Water 2
Pelicans - Taking Off in Water 2 (Nikon D800)

 

Pelicans - Taking Off in Water 3 (Nikon D800)

 


Pelicans - Taking Off in Water 4 (Nikon D800)

 

Which are the World's Fastest Birds?

The answer to this question cannot be accurate unless we try to answer it based on categories.

The peregrine falcon for example, in its dive for hunting, is believed to be the fastest bird on earth. The falcon soars to a height from which he can spot its prey and then, on its dive towards its target, he reaches a speed of about 300 km an hour.  So far this is the fastest speed of a bird known to us - while diving.

The great snipe is considered to be the fastest migratory bird over long distances. Swedish scientists using a tiny tracking device, documented a non-stop flight, from Sweden to central Africa, over a distance of 6760 km (4200 miles) at a speed of 97 km an hour (60 miles per hour).

The fastest level flying that we encountered during our research on migratory birds was the swift. Reaching a speed of 160-200 km an hour, the bird, equipped with a perfect aerodynamic shape, maintains a fairly constant speed during level flight, diving and while rising steeply.


Swift (Nikon D800) (4)

It is interesting to note that the swift is known to eat, sleep and mate while flying. Trying to photograph this bird is a daunting task.

 

Swift - One of the Fastest Birds
Swift (Nikon D800)

The swifts that migrate from South Africa to Israel arrive in Israel in mid February, breed and then go back to South Africa around mid June with the new born generation.

The following table offers a few examples, from different sources, that list the top fastest birds. The lists are not identical.

 

Fastest Level Flying

From The Travel Almanac
http://www.thetravelalmanac.com/lists/birds-speed.htm

 

Bird

max. recorded speed (km/h)

max. recorded speed (mph)

1.

Spine-tailed swift, also known as the White-throated Needletail (scientific name: Hirundapus caudacutus)

171

106

2.

Frigate bird

153

95

3.

Spur-winged goose

142

88

4.

Red-breasted merganser

129

80

5.

White-rumped swift

124

77

6.

Canvasback duck

116

72

7.

Eider duck

113

70

8.

Teal

109

68

=9.

Mallard

105

65

=9.

Pintail

105

65

From The Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_by_flight_speed

 

Bird

max. horizontal speed (km/h) max. horizontal speed (mph)

max. airspeed (km/h)

max. airspeed (mph)

1.

Peregrine Falcon

105-110

65-68

389

242

2.

Golden Eagle

129

80

320

200

3.

Gyrfalcon

 

 

209

130

4.

White-throated Needletail

169

105

 

 

5.

Swift

 

 

171 

106

6.

Eurasian Hobby

 

 

161 

100

7.

Frigatebird

 

 

153

95

8.

Spur-winged Goose

 

 

142

88v

9.

Red-breasted Merganser

 

 

130

81

10.

Canvasback

 

 

116

73

From Top Ten
http://worldtopten-10.blogspot.co.il/2013/08/top-10-fastest-birds.html

 

Bird

max. recorded speed (km/h)

max. recorded speed (mph)

1.

Peregrine Falcon

350

218

2.

Golden Eagle

300

187

3.

Spine-tailed swift 

170

106

4.

Frigate bird

153

95

5.

Spur-winged goose 

142

88

6.

Red-breasted Merganser 

129

80

7.

White-rumped swift

124

77

8.

Canvasback duck

116

72

9.

Eider ducks

113

70

10.

Teal

109

68

 

 
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