Taking Off

Birds prefer to take off into the wind—just like aircraft pilots. This way, air moves faster across the wings and generates more lift.   A small increase in airspeed goes a long way — a two-fold speed increase results in 4 times more lift.

Atlantic Puffin (Fraturcula actica).  Látrabjarg, Iceland. May. Photographer:  Peter R. Cavanagh

Atlantic Puffin (Fraturcula actica). Látrabjarg, Iceland. May. Photographer: Peter R. Cavanagh

The lifestyles of many bird species help to provide optimum take off conditions. For example, Atlantic Puffins (above) nest in burrows at the top of a cliff. They launch with a powerful leg thrust and then fly downwards using gravity to gain speed. Raptors typically roost in high trees for the same reason (and because they have a good view of potential prey).

Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) Vestfirðir, Iceland. May. Photographer:  Peter R. Cavanagh

Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) Vestfirðir, Iceland. May. Photographer: Peter R. Cavanagh

Whooper Swans (above) are among the heaviest birds. They nest and feed at water level— so running into the wind at full speed while flapping their wings is the only way they can get airborne. Takeoff occurs when wing lift is greater than their 25-pound body weight.

LEARN MORE about Taking Off

KIDS QUESTION: In the museum exhibit, we asked: What conditions allow a bird take off just by stretching its wings?

The answer is: When facing a very strong wind

When facing a very strong wind, the lift produced by airflow over the wings can be greater than the bird’s bodyweight. Gulls waiting for food on the incoming tide will often take off this way by facing the on-shore wind and simply opening their wings. Subtle adjustments to the wing shape keep the lift at precisely body weight so the birds effectively stay in one place above the ground.