Wing Shape and Size

Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, Kaua’i, Hawaii. February. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, Kaua’i, Hawaii. February. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

The wing shapes of birds are adapted to suit their behaviors and environments. For each unit of lift, the drag created by a long slender wing (see the Laysan Albatross, above) is reduced compared to a broader wing of the same area. This lowers energy cost during gliding and soaring in extended oceanic foraging trips. For the albatross, these can be as far as 1600 miles (2574 km).

Such long wings would be useless in the forest; so many passerines (perching birds) have short stubby wings that are good for quick maneuvering and rapid take off.

The ratio of wing length to width is called “aspect ratio”. This number varies from more than 16 in some albatrosses to less than 2 in some songbirds.

The wing shapes (“planforms”) of top row L to R: Rufous Humming Bird; Eastern Towhee; Waved Albatross. Bottom row L to R: Supermarine Spitfire; Stinson V77 Reliant; Perlan sailplane. The wingspans have all been set to the same value to the emphasize shape differences.

The wing shapes (“planforms”) of top row L to R: Rufous Humming Bird; Eastern Towhee; Waved Albatross. Bottom row L to R: Supermarine Spitfire; Stinson V77 Reliant; Perlan sailplane. The wingspans have all been set to the same value to the emphasize shape differences.

Airplane wings (above) show the same variety of shapes and aspect ratios: a competition sailplane has a higher aspect ratio than the albatross—because reduction of drag is a critical factor in gliding distance. Some military planes have swept back Delta wings with a very low aspect ratio and no tail. The World War II Spitfire wing was elliptical in shape.

The “planform” or shape of a hummingbird wing is remarkably similar to that of the Spitfire.

LEARN MORE ABOUT WING SIZE AND SHAPE

KIDS QUESTION: We asked: What types of birds with long skinny wings can you see on the beach?

The answer is: Seagulls
Seagulls have long, high aspect ratio wings with pointed wingtips. They are extremely capable fliers particularly in stormy conditions when other birds choose to remain on land.