Black browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, West Point Island, Falklands.

Ways of flying

Wings come in many shapes and sizes. Some are short and rounded, for quick take off and turning. Others are long and broad, to catch the wind like a hang-glider.

Different wing types

Speedy hummers

Hummingbirds can beat their tiny wings at more than 40 times a second. This allows them to hover perfectly still while probing a flower for nectar. The humming noise of their wings explains how they got their name.

Ocean wanderers

The wandering albatross has a wingspan of over three metres; the longest of any bird. Its wings are also very narrow. This shape is perfect for gliding low over the sea, using air currents just above the waves. Albatrosses can travel many kilometres without flapping at all.


Many large birds such as eagles and storks have long, broad wings, with a big surface area. This helps them catch rising currents of warm air, called thermals, which lift the bird up without any need for flapping. Once up high, they can position their wings so that they can glide. Many birds use thermals to cross the sea during migration.

Shaped for lifestyle

Some birds that look similar have different-shaped wings to suit their different lifestyles. A kestrel’s long, pointed wings allow it to glide and hover in the open while scanning for prey. The similar sparrowhawk hunts mostly in woodland. Its broader, more rounded wings allow it to twist and turn after small birds among the branches.

Flying underwater

Puffins and other members of the auk family have small wings that use up too much energy for flying long distances. But by flapping their wings underwater, puffins can dive to great depths. Penguins have adapted even more to underwater life. They cannot fly at all, and their wings work more like the flippers of a seal.