Birds fly amazing distances and can do wonderful things mid – flight. But do birds get tired of flying too long? Do they get exhausted or feel pain in their wings? Let’s find out!
We’ve all seen birds fly over our heads and wondered how much fun it would be to be able to fly around and roam the world “like a free bird”.
For hundreds of years, scientists have studied and researched bird flight to understand various facets of it.
One thing is clear from these studies: birds are uniquely and marvelously adapted to flight.
Their adaptations such as some birds’ ability to remain airborne without flapping their wings, their hollowed-out bones, and their ability to sleep mid-flight help them beat fatigue while flying.
Let’s understand these adaptions a bit more.
How Do Birds Fly for So Long Without Getting Tired?
Birds have unique physical adaptations that make long-duration flight possible for them. Birds manage their energy expenditure, so they do not get tired when flying.
They do this by gliding and reducing the number of wing beats per minute and having an aerodynamic body that has lower air resistance.
Moreover, their body structure supports flight; their bones are hollow, which helps in taking in more oxygen. The center of gravity of birds lies between their heads and tails, which keeps them balanced while flying.
Birds employ fewer wingbeats once they reach a certain height, and instead, take advantage of the properties of air currents and updrafts to stay aloft.
They use their wings only when it is necessary. This helps them in energy conservation during long flights. As a result, birds can soar for long distances with little muscle effort.
For example, birds such as the albatross have a wingspan as big as 11 feet. But big wings also mean a high energy requirement to flap them. So they use their impressive wings to mostly glide rather than flap. In fact, albatrosses can stay airborne for days on end, if needed.
Most birds have hollow bones. Contrary to popular belief, the main use of having hollow bones is not that they make a bird’s body lighter. In fact, birds’ bones are heavier than animals of similar size.
Hollow bones or pneumatized bones are filled with space for air intake.
This means that birds have lungs extending through the entirety of their bones. This adaptation lets birds take in oxygen during flight.
Air sacs are attached to the hollow areas of the bones so that birds can take in oxygen while both inhaling and exhaling.
This increased oxygen gives provides birds with the extra energy they need for flying.
When traveling long distances, birds can fly very close to water. This is a particular adaptation seen in birds with large wing spans.
When they fly over water, the air is funneled between the birds’ wings and the water’s surface.
This compressed air acts as a cushion that lets the bird float instead of having to flap its wings.
The closer they get, the stronger the effect is. If the water is still, this effect is even stronger.
How Long Can They Fly Non-Stop?
Great frigate birds can stay airborne for as long as two months straight while taking short, ten-second naps in between even when airborne.
Till a few years ago, it was thought that the longest single flight for any bird species is that of the alpine swift, which remained airborne for 200 days on end!
However, in recent years, researchers have shown that the common swift can stay airborne for almost all of their lives, or at least 10 months out of 12.
Common swifts can, eat, sleep and even mate in the air! In fact, some scientists belives that the swifts have really no reason to ever come down as long as the weather is fine and
Swifts have special physical adaptions that help them in such long flights. They can capture food and nesting material while in mid-flight.
How Do Birds Keep Their Energy Up When Flying?
Birds change their flight positions and postures to take advantage of aerodynamics. This helps them conserve energy when flying.
The commonly seen V-formation helps them save energy. The science behind this is quite interesting.
The bird flying in the front leaves a wake behind it, which gives an updraft to the air in that wake.
The bird following behind it flies slightly askew of this wake, making it easier for it to fly, and reducing the amount of energy it has to expend.
What Kind of Preparation Do They Do For Long Flights?
Like performance athletes, birds prepare extensively for migration. Some bird species alter their feeding habits before long flights. For example, migratory birds consume more food to store it as fat.
This helps cater to the birds’ energy needs when flying long distances.
Can They Die While Flying?
It is not likely that they will die due to exhaustion. However, birds can die while flying if they collide with an aircraft or buildings and windows.
Bird strikes have caused numerous accidents and human casualties in aircraft. Such strikes can prove to be fatal for the bird as well.
While the chances of death because of hitting windows varies from species to species, as many as 600 million birds die annually because they flew into windows.
Fatigue from Flying
Rarely, but sometimes chronic fatigue while flying can also result in death. Flocks of birds, especially migratory birds, have been known to die like this.
Can They Sleep While Flying?
Yes, birds can sleep and fly simultaneously.
We mentioned earlier that birds like frigate birds and alpine swifts can stay airborne for months on end.
Clearly, their sleep pattern helps them to stay afloat during that time.
Such birds can let half their brains sleep while the other half continues to control flight and navigation.
Can Birds Get Wing Pain Because of Flying?
Their unique adaptations mean that birds do not get extremely exhausted or feel pain due to long flights.
But in general, birds can feel pain, and one can notice this in their behavior and posture.
For example, a bird in pain may limp or hold its wings strangely. Most wild birds do not usually exhibit any outward signs of pain.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do birds get out of breath when flying over long distances?
For example, birds flying faster than usual to escape predators are likely to overspend their energy and run out of breath.
What happens if birds fly too high?
Flying higher calls for more wingbeats which also results in more energy expenditure.
Since it gets cold at high altitudes, birds also need to keep their body warmer. This also requires energy and can make them exhausted.
What are the benefits of flying for birds?
It also helps them with larger and better terrain visibility, which assists them in gathering food.
Birds also fly to escape harsh weather conditions (bird migration).
Birds, particularly migratory birds, traverse umpteen miles in their lifetime. However, owing to their physical adaptations, they do not get tired of flying.
Birds may become fatigued in when fleeing predators or flying too high for extended periods, but usually, they can fly along just fine.