Swimming Wings

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata). Tatoosh Island, Washington. July. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata). Tatoosh Island, Washington. July. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

Several species of birds—including Atlantic and Tufted Puffins (above)—use their wings for propulsion when flying through the air and when diving under water. They have small wings and laborious flight patterns in air, reflecting the compromise necessary for this dual use.

When diving underwater, puffins flap their partly folded wings with the tips trailing the wrists like swept-wing fighter planes (similar to the wing posture of the stretching bird above). Puffins can generate useful propulsive forces in water during the downstroke and upstroke of the wing.

Atlantic puffins can reach depths of up to 60 meters (almost 200 feet) during their dives. Small penguins, that also use their rudimentary “wings” for diving, swim to similar depths.

Common Murres, a species in the same family as puffins (alcids) and often found in the same habitat, can dive to depths of more than 400 feet. This greater depth gives murres access to food sources that puffins cannot reach.

LEARN MORE ABOUT SWIMMING WINGS

KIDS QUESTION: In the museum exhibit, we asked: How do ducks swim underwater?

The answer is: Most ducks use only their webbed feet to swim under water
Ducks are generally described as either “dabbling” or “diving”. Only the diving ducks swim under water and when they do, most of them tuck their wings in tightly and use only their webbed feet to swim under water.