Birds Through the Air
No other characteristic of birds so invokes our envy and admiration as the fact that they fly. Through their evolutionary development, birds have become highly efficient fliers. Their form, their feathers, their strong but lightweight bones, their efficient respiratory and circulatory systems, their excellent eyesight, their strong muscles, and their responsive nervous system all combine to make them nature's most superb flying machines. Birds are masters of the same principles that an airplane uses to fly: lift, thrust, and maneuverability.
Equipped to Fly
What distinguishes birds from all other animals is that they have feathers. It is the strong but lightweight feather that gives shape to the wing. A bird's wing is rounded above and hollowed underneath. This curved shape enables the bird to cut through the air and produce lift. It is lift that counteracts the force of gravity and allows birds to rise into the sky, leaving behind the Earth and its envious humans.
Paths and Patterns
Learning to identify a bird in flight will greatly increase a birder's skills. Birds do not all fly the same way. You will need to practice watching birds in motion. As you do, make note of the style of flight. Look at the wing beat and wing shape. Watch the path they draw in the sky. Even the silhouette of a bird in flight is a tremendous aid in identification.
Compare the quick wing beat of the Canvasback...
...to the labored beat of the White Pelican on take-off
...to the deep wing stroke of the Sanderling
...to the continuous wing beat of the Peregrine Falcon
...to the halting wing beat of the Sharp-shinned Hawk
...to the extremely rapid wingbeat of the Allen's Hummingbird.
Not all birds get airborne the same way. Some birds need a running start to lift into the air. The diving ducks, like the White-winged Scoter (below, left), taxi across the water to gain lift. Marsh ducks, like the Mallard (below, right), spring into flight instantly.
Birds use a variety of equipment when they land. Some birds use their outstretched feet to land. Some birds depend on their wings and tail to help them land. The Great Gray Owl's tail acts as a rudder when landing.
The long, narrow, pointed wings of the albatrosses and shearwaters enable them to glide with little flapping.
The Common Black-Hawk has wide rounded wings. The large wing surface enables it to soar for long periods without effort.
The rapid wing beats and light body weight of hummingbirds, such as the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, allow them to hover while feeding.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse's wings are useless for long, sustained flight but perfect for a quick leap to safety. The short, rounded shape enables it to lift straight into the air quickly.
Many geese and swans fly in a line or wedge formation, like the Canada Goose.
What is North America's fastest bird?
The Peregrine Falcon regularly attains speeds of about 40-60 miles per hour and has been clocked during its steep dives at 175 miles per hour!