bird2The flight capability of various animals, including birds, mammals, fish and reptiles throughout the history of our planet, is an amazing saga. Insects, led by dragonflies and their relatives, have been perfecting their flying ability for more than three hundred million years. Birds and some of their reptilian ancestors have been airborne for more than one hundred million years and have rivaled insects in developing their flying skills. Bats have been sharpening their flying skills over the past fifty million years. Other mammals and fish are remaining in the gliding phase of flight skills and still have a lot of “research and development time” to improve their flight capability.

The flight capability of various animals, including birds, mammals, fish and reptiles throughout the history of our planet, is an amazing saga. Insects, led by dragonflies and their relatives, have been perfecting their flying ability for more than three hundred million years. Birds and some of their reptilian ancestors have been airborne for more than one hundred million years and have rivaled insects in developing their flying skills. Bats have been sharpening their flying skills over the past fifty million years. Other mammals and fish are remaining in the gliding phase of flight skills and still have a lot of “research and development time” to improve their flight capability.

Since this a birding column, I will limit my writing about the interesting skills birds have developed and refined over their one hundred million plus years being airborne. The oldest bird relative is believed to be the fossil Archaeopteryx discovered in approximately 139 million years old Jurassic Period rocks. These creatures were more like dinosaurs than what we consider modern birds. This reptilian is thought to have climbed trees or rock outcrops to set sail by gliding back to the ground level. This fossil also shows the transformation of reptilian scales to an early feather-like body covering.

If you go to the park visitor’s center in Big Bend National Park, checkout the fossil skeleton bones of a wing belonging to a flying dinosaur, Quetzalcoatus, who had a wingspan of almost forty feet. These dinosaur-like creatures had a short history of survival and disappeared along with the other dinosaurs around 65 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period. The descendants of Archaeopteryx continued to improve their physiology of developing feathers and lighter, hollow bones to sustain flight. At this time the fossil record shows these creatures were beginning to resemble modern birds.

Modern bird families have developed many flying techniques. Without question the most sophisticated flying skills belong to the hummingbirds. These tiny birds not only are very fast flyers, but possess incredible maneuverable flying skills. These birds can hover, fly backwards, upside down and perform many other acrobatic moves. Hummingbirds have exceptionally fast wing beats, but possess virtually no strength to escape from trouble, such as spider webs.

Several birds of prey have the ability to hover, or remain stationary in flight. Many birds of prey use this flying tactic to observe potential prey movements below them as they hover. This flying technique is very similar to humans being able to thread water and remain stationary in water. The down-side of this areal tactic is that much energy is required to maintain the fixed position in the sky. The lighter hummingbirds use hovering while feeding in flower blossoms and appear to be able to manage energy consumption better than are the heavier birds of prey.

Hawks, vultures, and sea birds can seemingly soar on air currents and remain stationary with very little wing flapping to maintain altitude. The birds learn to face into an air current and just ride the current without moving a muscle. These birds also can soar for long periods of time without having any wing flaps. For example, albatrosses can fly for days without burning any energy to stay airborne. These birds are also able to find rising thermal air currents that create lift without any wing action. Glider pilots understand and take advantage of these thermal updrafts.

Geese, ducks and pelicans are birds that fly in “V” formations to save energy by positioning themselves in the wake of the bird ahead. The air current eddies tend to provide lift to the trailing bird. Only the lead bird in the formation has no flight advantage and must rotate positions with other birds to save its energy.

All of these flight capabilities have been developed over millions of years to help the birds save energy while flying or provide stationary positions in the sky to search for prey. Take time to observe a hovering American Kestrel remain stationary in the air while he hunts. These observations are what make birding so special.

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