Have you ever wondered how do birds fly? If you look up in the sky you are bound to see a bird  soaring gracefully above, seemingly doing nothing to stay flying high up in the air. It was through watching birds that man was first inspired to reach for the skies. In the 15th century, artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci studied how birds fly to figure out their flying methods to adapt them into creating technology that would eventually allow humans to fly high in the sky.

birdCredit: morguefile

How do Birds Fly?

Evolution has designed birds’ bodies to be excellent for flying. Birds’ bodies are very light, with their wings specially shaped to lift them into the air. A bird’s skeleton has evolved to be perfect for flight, as their bones are hollow, which is ideal for flying as it makes them lighter in the air. Birds have the same four forces acting on them as aeroplanes do.  To fly, birds have to push up harder than gravity is pulling them down and go propel themselves forward faster than the drag from the air currents is holding them back.

Birds’ wings are designed with a slight curve from front to back, create the lift required to keep them in the air. A bird gets most of the power required for flying when it pushes air down and back, which thrust the bird forward through the air and allows it to take off.  Once up in the air, the wing feathers open up and allow air to pass through, which limits resistance.

To soar in the air, bald eagles use the rising current of warm air called thermals. By soaring, the eagles are able to conserve energy by limiting the flapping of their wings. This also helps them to find, stalk and hunt their prey from above.


Feathers play a crucial role in a bird’s ability to fly, as they have evolved to be able to help give the bird's wings the shape they need to be able to take off and soar smoothly through the air. Birds’ feathers overlap in such a way that the surface of the wings are flat and airtight, which is ideal for flying. All birds have between 1000 and 25,000 feathers. Large ‘flight feathers’ on the wings help to support and propel birds through the air, using the cold and warm air currents and winds to move, soar, climb, dip and navigate their way through the sky. The first humans to discover the secret of bird wing shape were the Australian aborigines, who used their knowledge to create the boomerang, which flies and curves through the air when thrown, arching around and returning to the person who threw it.

bird(127176)Credit: morguefile


To land, a bird has to slow down to a safe speed before it touches down, otherwise it will be travelling too fast and will crash into the ground or tree. Birds achieve this by tilting their body upwards, and spreading their wings to create a strong drag in the air currents around their body. This causes the bird to slow down in a similar fashion to a parachute. However, there are some bird who don't use this landing technique. For example, a pelican will use its webbed feet as breaks when it lands on the ground or water.

The Tiniest of Fliers

At only 5.7 centimetres (2.25 inches) and weighing 1.6 grams (0.06oz), hummingbirds are the smallest flying animals. They are also the only birds that are capable of flying both backwards and upside down. They beat their wings in a figure eight pattern. When hovering to feed on the nectar of plants, a hummingbird's wings will flap at a rate of more than 90 beats per second. Hummingbirds will also eat their bodyweight in nectar or sugar every single day.

Bird Facts

The Guinness world record for the highest flying altitude for a bird was reached by a Ruppell’s griffon vulture. It was recorded colliding with a plane over Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1973 at a height of 11,274 metres (36,990 feet).

Although it cannot fly, the ostrich is the fastest running bird.  It can reach up to 95 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour).

To make their unique knocking sound, the great spotted woodpecker will drill their beaks into the wood of the tree 40 times a second.

There are ten species of bird, including the ostrich, emu, rhea and kiwi, that cannot fly. Their breastbones don’t support flight muscles.

Swifts and house martins sleep while flying. At dusk, the birds gather together and fly to a height of 2000 metres (6560 feet) above the ground where is a warmer air layer.

The largest bird’s nest was built by bald eagles in Florida. The nest was 2.9 metres (9.5 feet) wide, 6m (20 feet) deep and weighed more than 1800 kilograms (3970 pounds).

A pelican’s bill can hold up to 13 litres of water.

At 47 centimetres (18.5 inches), pelicans’ bills are the longest of any bird.

Birds have hollow bones which help them to fly as it makes them lighter in the air.

The chicken is the most common species of bird in the world

Every year, around 20 per cent of all bird miragte large distances.

Homing pigeons have been bred for thousands of years to be able to find their way home from far away. This made them an excellent messenger system.

The biggest flying bird is the great bustard. It weighs up to 14 kilograms (30 pounds) and can be 1.2 metres (4 feet) long. The albatross has the largest wingspan (3.6 metres or 12 feet) of any bird.

The world's fastest bird is the peregrine falcon which can reach level flight speeds of up to 95 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour).

By watching, observing and studying, man has been able to discover the answer to how do birds fly. Through answering this question, man has been able to adapt the evolutionary advantages of birds flying into creating technology like planes that now allow us to travel the skies.