barred owl

School’s in session, Pinellas! Time to learn a few things about feathers and flight from the experts themselves… Florida’s wild birds!

It's not fair!

It’s NOT fair!

Scooter is envious! While he sits on branches overlooking the growth curling through the Northwood Commons back lot observation area, his feathered friends are busy hopping and flitting between branches, high atop the wide oaks and pines that shade the stream and vines below. Ohhh… to “slip the surly bonds of Earth…” and fly! Well, while we and Scooter can’t indulge without technology intervening to assist (Vinny’s not all that good at it anymore, either...), we can at least look into the mechanics of flight. Starting with the formation of wings from birth, through their means of flight… along invisible folds of heated air floating above our heads… the act of flying is a wondrous thing that truly inspires envy – even in the best of us.

Let’s examine the formation of these incredible appendages called, wings: 

Depending upon which type of bird is being considered, all feathers and wings are not alike. Soaring birds, like Florida’s gulls, have wings which are long and narrow leading to a defined and pointed tip. This long and narrow, almost boomerang contour, assists these particular wild birds in their sometimes long treks over several miles of Florida coastline and marshland areas.

Shorter or less defined wings with a broader end and wider tip are often seen among Florida’s inland wild bird groups. These can include game birds like pheasants and Florida’s wild turkeys, and also with common ground feeding birds such as doves and woodpeckers. An elliptical wing shape helps these birds lift off quickly while supporting their weight in as even a manner as possible while rising.

vinny the wbu clearwater mascot

I have no split ends. I use Pantene!

Wings which are noticeably “split” at the ends; where a separation between wing tip feathers is evident even from the ground (called emargination), signifies a wild bird that indulges in long rounds of soaring and/or gliding. Predatory birds such as hawks and eagles, and other, more docile, large birds such as swans and vultures have emargination on their wing tips.  This assists these soaring birds to glide with little effort along waves of warm air, helping them to rise, lower and float easily while hunting.

Wings without emargination, or splits in the wing tip feathers, belong to birds which often feed or capture prey while in flight, such as hawks and swifts. Whereas the emargination of the wings in other predatory birds allows them to float while hunting, the lack of this feature helps predatory birds who feed in flight to position themselves accordingly. They are better able to maneuver strongly in sharp turns and twist their bodies in order to quickly capture their prey.

Yellow Breasted Chat with outstretched wing

But how do they stay up there?

Florida’s wild birds have three options for staying “up there”… wind, air currents and updrafts. Each has its own characteristic and each bird uses these options at different times for various reasons.

Floating or soaring birds; hawks, eagles, vultures… they rely heavily on these warm air currents to rise and fall according to the needs of their flight. These air currents offer a means by which these wild birds can easily remain in air for an extended period of time while using very little of their own energy to do so.

Gulls are often likely to take advantage of simple wind currents. Using their tapered, narrow wings… gulls charge towards a gushing wind while flapping and lift themselves to their preferred level. This strong air movement offers them the benefit of using less energy to catch flight while using and saving energy for lift.

wbu clearwater/safety harbor

Starling upper wing

Updrafts caused when Florida’s balmy breezes strike the waves create appealing updrafts for a host of shorebirds, especially. This is why we see Florida’s gulls and their kin gliding along the tops of the water. They take clean advantage of this available wind and use it to their advantage to lift and glide and soar close along the wavy edges of Florida’s coastlines.

Landing isn’t as easy as it looks!

A slow motion observation of a landing bird is really a spectacle of effort vs common sense and some wicked true skill! It’s a beautiful thing! Birds, all wild birds, use pretty much the same technique. Not for any particular reason other than… the same way just plain works.

Upon deciding to land, wild birds will approach a landing spot, eyeing it with keen interest. They may circle a time or two, or come straight in… either way, all wild birds lift their wings and spread them, flapping, to create drag against the air gathered beneath and in front of them as they are opened. Their chests are pushed forward, legs are outstretched and talons erect as they approach their chosen perch or ground area. Once on the ground, a slight hopping will help the wild bird find its footing.  Aside from these aspects of flight, are other details which can also affect how Florida’s wild birds soar so beautifully. The variety of feathers on a bird’s wing each serves its own very crucial purpose.

Main feather types include:

  • Contour: Contour feathers are the outer feathers which give Florida’s wild birds their colorful shield… so to speak. They are often sturdier than sub-feathers and are likely to have strong colors due to carotenoids and melanins.
  • Flight Feathers: Flight feathers are as stated… used for flight. They are thick and ridged yet highly flexible, allowing for the bird to amend its movement without losing valuable and much needed feathers.
  • Bristle: The bristle feathers are those which cover and, some say, shield the face from prey during feeding.
  • Down: As is familiar, down feathers are small feathers found close to the bird’s body. Due to their loose nature, down feathers are easily intertwined with one another, helping to create air pockets which trap heat and help wild birds remain warm.

A wild bird’s weight is another interesting factor by which it is able to fly and stay in flight for as long and as often as needed. While we beefier bipedal mammals must contend with heavy bone structures (well, that’s what we’ll call it… “big-boned”…) the bones of wild birds are slight and hollow of marrow. It is this light-weight internal structure that lends an ease of lift, prolonged soaring and flight maneuverability for Florida’s wild birds.

Bald Eagle FlyingSo, while we (and Scooter…and Vinny, for that matter…) remain firmly planted to the ground via gravity and too many Big Macs, Florida’s graceful wild birds remain peacefully lifted above… watching. In their secret world, filled with silent cloud banks and soaring stretches belonging only to them, wild birds rule the sky in a way that we can only imagine and will forever, even for the best of us… envy.

Below you will find a beautiful example of a wild bird’s flight in slow motion. Notice the detail of movement. Enjoy!


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Hammock Bird Banding

A dynamic update on the Migratory Bird Banding Project in Hammock Park, Dunedin, Florida.

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