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Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Birds have different ways of taking off and of flying. They accomplish these tasks using wings of many different sizes and shapes.


Ring-necked Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

The "Fast Take-off" Wing
Some birds – for example, turkeys, pheasants, and grouse – need to be able to take off quickly from wherever they are to get away from predators. These birds have relatively short, fat wings. This wing shape allows the bird a lot of thrust (forward movement) to lift off quickly. This wing shape also allows for fairly good maneuvering around trees and obstacles, which also helps the bird escape from predators. But this wing shape isn't good at all for long, sustained flight. You might notice a turkey flying quickly into a nearby tree to escape a predator, but don't expect to look to the autumn sky and see a turkey migrating to South America – their wings just aren't designed for that!

The "Soaring" Wing
This wing type is characteristic of Red-tailed Hawks, eagles, and Turkey Vultures – birds which are typically seen soaring above the earth. Their wings are long but are relatively broad or fat. This wing shape is great for catching thermals (warm, rising air) for soaring. Turkey Vultures are such expert thermal-catchers they can soar for hours without flapping their wings.

Soaring wings also often have what are called "finger feathers" – single feathers at the end of the wing spread-out to look like fingers at the end of an arm. The purpose of finger feathers is to allow for subtle movements without moving the entire wing.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

The "High-Speed and
Maneuverability" Wing

Have you ever seen a fighter jet flying overhead? The wing shape of this airplane was actually modeled after this type of bird wing. Long, narrow, and angled, the shape is characteristic of swifts, swallows and many shorebirds.

Because it's long, slender and angled, this wing type is great for flying quickly because it has very little drag (resistance that slows motion). This wing type is also capable of fast movements, which allows the bird to turn quickly. The Barn Swallow is a great example – it can often be seen catching insects in mid-flight!

The "Slow, Flapping" Wing
If you venture to a wetland, you might catch a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron flying overhead. The flight of the heron is characterized by long, slow wing flaps. Herons and egrets have wings which are long and relatively slender. This wing shape is good for long flights. It's not good for quick maneuvering like they wings of the Barn Swallow or for quick take-offs like the wings of the pheasant.

The "Long-Distance Flyer" Wing
It's hard to imagine being able to fly, let alone to fly for two days straight. It would be like trying to run for all that time without ever stopping. Many long-distance migrating birds do just that, staying in the air for as long as 48 hours. Their wings make this possible. Having long, narrow, pointed wings allows a bird to have plenty of thrust while reducing drag. This makes flying easier and reduces the amount of energy needed to fly long distances. A good example of this wing type can be seen on many gull species, including the Franklin's Gull, which migrates from its wintering grounds in South America to its summer breeding grounds in Canada.


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