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Taking Flight: 5 Different Types of Bird Wings & What They Mean

Before airplanes, humans sought inspiration from nature when studying the possibilities of flight. They studied birds, insects, and even seeds that flutter through the air. Over time, these remarkable organisms have evolved and adapted to fit their habitats.

Today we’re looking at birds, and not all birds fly the same way. Differences in the shapes and functions of birds’ wings offer clues to the habitats in which they live. As with birds’ wings, the shape and configuration of an airplane’s wings affect the way it flies.

How Birds Are Able to Fly

Birds and airplanes both utilize four different components of flight: lift, thrust, drag, and weight. Drag is caused by friction and air resistance, and weight is the result of gravity.

Bird’s wings are able to give them lift and the muscles that reside in the wings give them thrust to move forward.

PC: C Gleason

Not All Birds Are the Same

Not all birds fly the same way. Different birds need different functions depending on their habitats and the type of food they eat. Looking at their flying habits, this can determine what their habitat looks like and what their other needs are.

There are five different flight habits that birds and airplanes utilize:

Rapid Take Off

Birds like the grouse have short and rounded wings. These types of wings allow the bird to take off quickly and maximize their maneuverability.

Grouse
PC: flickr.com

Grouses live in forests with dense undergrowth, which makes flying more difficult if you don’t have the right type of wing since these types of birds need to maneuver in tighter spaces. Being able to take off quickly helps them avoid predators!

Fun Fact: We’ve taken inspiration from this type of wing and applied it to the F-35 fighter jet. Its rapid takeoff means it can launch quickly from the shorter runway on an aircraft carrier.

Gliding

Long, narrow, and pointed wings, like those of the albatross, allow these kinds of birds to glide over long distances.

Albatross
PC: Wikimedia Commons

The Wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any living bird, reaching up to eleven feet! Albatross spend most of their lives at sea. They need this type of wing to glide over long distances so they do not lose stamina flapping their wings.

Fun Fact: Did you know that the 1937 Bowlus Baby albatross single-seat, high-wing monoplane glider could glide more than 250 miles without engine power?

Soaring

Birds that have long, broad wings with slotted wingtips, like those of a turkey vulture, are able to stay airborne for long periods without flapping their wings.

Turkey vulture
PC: Flickr.com

Turkey vultures spend hours circling around high up in the sky, searching for carcasses while riding columns of warm air, known as “thermals.”

Fun Fact: The 1963 Arlington Sisu 1A was the first sailplane to soar farther than 621 miles.

High Speed

Short, pointed wings, like those of a falcon, allow birds to fly at record-breaking speeds.

Falcon
PC: Flickr.com

Peregrine falcons are one of the fastest animals on Earth. When they dive to catch their prey, these falcons can reach speeds of up to 220 miles per hour – as fast as a race car!

Fun Fact: The supersonic Concorde airliner flew across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound for more than 25 years.

Hovering

Hummingbirds are in a whole different ballpark when it comes to flight. Their ability to rotate their wings creates lift on the up and down strokes, allowing them to hover in one place.

Hummingbird
PC: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike other birds, hummingbirds can fly in multiple directions, including backwards and sideways. Their wings can beat up to 80 times per second, and hummingbirds spend up to 90 percent of their flying time hovering to feed.

Fun Fact: Helicopters are similar to hummingbirds in the way that they hover. The United Kingdom’s ProxDynamics Black Hornet autonomous microhelicopter is the most sophisticated in the world – and is actually the size of a hummingbird!

The next time you see a bird, study their wings. You may be able to get a glimpse into what their habitat looks like based on how they fly – some soar high up in the air, others burst into short flight closer to the ground, but all birds can make use of their wings.

Make sure to be respectful of the birds, study from a distance, and try not to startle them! They may need to rest after their long travels.

Visit Green Bay Botanical Garden to see Habitat to learn more about birds and their flight habits, and don’t forget to measure your wingspan!

Habitat was developed by Smithsonian Gardens and is made available by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.