Have you ever wondered how high can birds actually fly? In this article we’re going to discuss a bird’s ability to fly, but more specifically how high they can actually fly. We’ll give you some examples of how high various species fly as well as some interesting facts.
Let’s have a look!
How high can birds fly?
Birds can literally fly at any height from a few inches (or centimeters) above the surface of the earth to over 30,000 feet. In fact, the greatest height a bird has reached that has been measured is 37,000 ft, when a Ruppell’s vulture hit an airplane at that height in 1974.
At the other extreme, a barn swallow will often swoop and fly only about 4 inches (10 cms) above the earth, as they look for insects. A small bird, like the nuthatch, can fly very short distances at only a few inches above the ground when it is looking for food.
Birds rely on their ability to fly
Birds seem to enjoy flitting and flying around, but they do not fly for fun. There are a few reasons for birds to fly: to get from one place to another, catch prey or escape from something.
Getting from one place to another can be as simple as moving from the nest to a tree nearby, or it can be as complicated as a bird migrating across half the earth. Many types of birds catch prey literally ‘on-the-wing’ and need to fly to do so. When a bird is threatened, it will inevitably try to escape by flying away.
Different birds fly to different heights for different reasons. A falcon, for example, will need to fly high, so that it can look down over quite a big area to look for prey. A dove will only fly to a small height so that it can digest food before finding another tree to feed on.
How they are able to fly
Sometimes, it seems as though a bird just needs to flap its wings a few times to get up into the air, then they just cruise along. Actually, flying is quite a complicated phenomenon if you analyze it. If not, surely we could all go flying around?
Birds are specifically made to fly, with very light bones, a streamlined shape, strong chest muscles, a tail and, of course, their wings.
The basic principle of flight is that the bird flaps its wings, creating pressure against the air that is forced downwards, which causes them to rise. This is called lift.
If a bird had to flap its wings at the same speed and pressure for every moment of every flight, it would become exhausted and not be able to fly any distance at all.
Some birds are specifically designed to flap their wings very often. The hummingbird can flap its wings up to 90 times a second. Others, like birds of prey, can fly for a long time with hardly any flapping.
Examples of birds that fly the highest
Among all the birds, there are those that fly higher than the others, because they are looking for food, or traveling great distances and need the height to help them on their way.
1. Ruppell’s vulture
The king of the high flyers in the bird world is Ruppell’s vulture, which can reach heights of up to 37,000 ft (11,300 m). Like other members of the vulture family, these birds use their huge wingspan to catch the thermals and spend hours gliding on high, looking out over a great distance for any carrion to feed on.
2. Common crane
The heir apparent of the high flyers is the common crane, which can fly up to heights of 33,000 ft (10,000 m). Common cranes are migratory birds and need to cover great distances twice a year, so they have to fly high enough to benefit from the thinner air and to avoid obstacles on the earth, such as the Rocky Mountains.
3. Bar-headed goose
The second runner-up in the high flyer stakes is the Bar-headed goose, which can fly up to 29,000 ft (9,000 m). These are also migratory birds and they have to be able to fly over Mount Everest, which is in their native Central Asia.
4. Whooper swan
There is undisputed proof that the Whooper swan is also a worthy runner up in the high flyer stakes, as radar once recorded a flock over Northern Ireland at the impressive height of 27,000 ft (8,200 m) The Whooper swan is also a migratory bird that travels across Europe and Asia during the year and which makes use of the lower pressures at great heights.
5. Alpine Chough
It’s not always the biggest and bravest that get the titles. One of the highest-flying birds is the Alpine Chough, which is native to Asia and used to flying around very high mountains. They can fly up to 26,500 ft (8,000 m) and are known for their great flight skills.
How birds manage to fly so high
Hummingbirds often fly at heights of 500 feet above sea level, and fly 500-600 miles without stopping during migrations. Once they reach their destinations though, they spend most of their time hovering near flowers. They need very little pressure on the air below their wings to get to the height they need to feed.
Canada geese on the other hand, may fly at altitudes of up to 8000 feet during migration. That’s over 1.5 miles high.
Let’s look at a couple more examples.
Birds of Prey
A vulture has a wingspan nearly three times the length of its body, which gives a lot of lift, but which means the wings are heavy to flap. This is why they don’t need their wings a lot during their long flights. In fact, a vulture can go for up to six hours with only a little flapping. They achieve this by riding on the air.
Air is not just a solid mass of particles. There are areas of different pressure and currents that run between them, called thermals. A bird of prey like a vulture literally floats on the thermals, which is why they can glide a lot, rather than flapping.
Birds that migrate over long distances will get exhausted very quickly if they flap all the time, but they need to cover long distances, unlike the birds of prey that circle around looking for prey. This is why birds fly so high when they migrate so that they are pushing on less dense air, which takes less effort and doesn’t tire them so much.
For us, any height a bird can reach is high, because we are not built for flight like they are. There are some birds that are capable of flying at extreme heights because they need to look for food, or travel great distances, or just simply live up in the heights. While Ruppell’s vulture holds the honor of being the highest flyer, there are other bird species that come in a very close second.