Re: Soaring birds

To: John Anselmi <>
Subject: Re: Soaring birds
From: Stephen Ambrose <>
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997 19:14:13 +1100
Hi John,

Thanks for bringing the topic of flight energetics to our attention. I have some
knowledge of avian energetics, physiology and anatomy, so I can offer a little 
bit of
help, but there are no doubt others out there who can add more information.

As far as I am aware, soaring birds do not have a means of locking their 
?shoulders? in
flight. There is very little weight loading carried by the pectoral muscles, 
because of
the structure of the wing and the light weight of a bird. Unlike mammals, birds 
hollow bones with internal cross-strutting, thus reducing the overall weight of 
wings and other parts of the body. The air-stream passing underneath the wing 
as the
bird flies through the air also pushes the wings upwards compared with the 
that passes over the top of the wing, and this is assisted further by rising 
So the pressure on the pectoral muscles in supporting the outspread wings is 
not as
great as one would first imagine.

Unlike a fixed-winged plane or glider, a bird has the ability to alter the area 
shape of its wings and their position with respect to the body. Such an ability 
the bird to manoeuver in flight and change the aerodynamic qualities of its 
wings to
meet the birds flight requirements under different conditions. Furthermore, the 
wing is
not a solid structure like a plane?s wing, but allows the flow of air through 
between the feathers, further reducing the drag loading on the pectoral muscles.

It is not difficult to maintain circulation of oxygenated blood through the 
muscles and other flight muscles while a bird is soaring. Firstly, birds have 
powerful hearts that beat very quickly and thus are very efficient in pumping 
blood to
all parts of the body, including into the pectoral muscles and the wings. 
Secondly, the
flight muscles are very well vascularised, further facilitating the flow of 
blood and
oxygen to the tissues. Although a bird may soar in the air for hours, it will
occasionally flap its wings; this physical movement also helps to direct the 
flow of
blood to and from the flight muscles.

The pectoral muscle of soaring birds also consists of two types of muscle fibre,
voluntary skeletal muscle for power of contraction and deeper involuntary 
skeletal muscle for sustained use.

Birds also have a very efficient respiratory system to increase the uptake of 
oxygen and
removal of carbon dioxide from the body tissues. The lungs also extend into 
that extend to different parts of the body, and occupy about 20% of the volume 
of a
bird?s body. Such a system allows a bird to fly at high altitudes where oxygen 
are low and it also allows oxygen to reach body tissues quickly through rapid 
into the circulatory system.

You are quite right in saying that wing flapping assists respiration in birds, 
but it is
not necessary unless an increased rate of gaseous exchange is required. The 
surfaces of the lungs adhere to the ribs, and the lower surfaces adhere to a 
lining the body wall. Quiet respiratory movements when a bird is resting on 
land or is
soaring in the air are produced by the intercostal (inspiratory) and abdominal
(expiratory) muscles acting upon the thoracic and abdominal cavities so as to 
and contract the thorax, drawing air in and out of the air sacs, through the 
lungs. When
a bird flaps its wings in flight, the ventilation of the respiratory system is 
by the pectoral muscles which move the sternum towards and away from the 

It can be quite costly in terms of energy for birds to soar for long periods of 
However, soaring birds (e.g. raptors, albatrosses, swifts etc.) usually have
protein-rich diets (e.g. fish, terrestrial vertebrates, insects), so under 
situations this form of foraging is cost-effective. Most soaring birds also 
travel long distances in search of food (e.g. albatrosses can cover thousands of
kilometres of the Southern Ocean in the space of several days) and can only do 
this by
soaring because it is too energy-expensive to actively fly these distances.

It is not uncommon for Wedge-tailed Eagles to be seen soaring at several 
thousand feet.
At these heights they are usually looking out for intruders in their territorial

Dr Stephen Ambrose
Research and Conservation Manager.

Birds Australia (formerly Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union).
Australian Bird Research Centre,
415 Riversdale Road,
Hawthorn East,
VIC   3123.

Tel:    (03) 9882 2622.
Fax:    (03) 9882 2677.
Email:  S.Ambrose <>  (at work)
          (at home)

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