These Masters of the Sky Can Fly for Hours (or Days) While Barely Flapping

A Boeing 737 requires a lot of jet fuel to stay up in the air: at least 750 gallons every hour. Flying, as humans have learned, takes a lot of energy. For birds, maintaining their own bodies up in the sky for hours, days, and even months can also be incredibly costly, but they’ve at least evolved for the task. Small birds like warblers are lightweight enough that they can remain airborne by quickly flapping their wings. For heavier birds, though, flapping takes too much energy. When bird species reach the size of a small raptor, they start to rely on other types of flight: soaring and gliding. Through soaring, birds gain altitude and travel quickly by taking energy from wind currents in the atmosphere. When they glide, they use the position of their wings to deflect air downward, which creates a force called “updraft” that keeps them up in the air. There are different kinds of soaring and gliding, and birds use them in a variety of ways. “The air is this amazing environment that’s on the move all the time,” says Emily Shepard, a researcher who studies animal movement at Swansea University in Wales. “It’s just fascinating to see how it can create both opportunities and risks for different species.” Meet some of the masters of these flying techniques.

Wandering Albatrosses

“Wandering Albatrosses are the ultimate soaring birds,” says Anders Hedenström, an animal flight expert at Sweden’s Lund University. When you take a look at their bodies, you understand why: With wings reaching 11 to 12 feet long from tip to tip, they have the largest wingspan of any living bird. Those wings can keep their thin, cigarette-like bodies aloft for days at a time.


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