can all birds fly high

The vast majority of birds are capable of flight, but a few species take their flying talents to another level.

Some birds can fly at incredible altitudes equalling or exceeding that of planes. In fact, some species have even been spotted out of the window of jet airliners! So, why and how can birds fly at high altitudes?

When migrating, flying at higher altitudes requires less effort as the air is thinner and air resistance is lower, the same principle as to why commercial airliners also cruise at high altitudes. In addition, some non-migratory birds like eagles and vultures fly at high altitudes to give them a wide birds eye view of the terrain below them, enabling them to pick out prey across a wide area.

There are just a handful of birds that can fly at altitudes exceeding 20,000ft, or 6,000m, and just two or three are capable of flying at altitudes exceeding 30,000ft, or 9,100m. That’s similar to a commercial airliner at cruising height or higher than Mount Everest.

Read on to discover why and how birds fly at altitudes, and what birds top the list of the highest-flying birds in the world!

How do birds fly so high?

Most animals have a tough time at altitudes exceeding 10,000ft. Altitude sickness begins at 2,500 meters, or about 8,000 feet, above sea level. The oxygen content of the air is roughly half that of sea level at elevations of 15,000 to 18,000 feet, making breathing challenging. Although humans can function at this altitude, any significant exercise requires acclimatization.

At 20,000 feet or more, even the most experienced climbers need a steady supply of oxygen to stay alive. Only about 200 climbers without oxygen have reached the summit of Everest, and many more have given up in the process.

Since flying isn’t exactly an easy feat, you have to consider that birds must ascend and descend to this amazing height, often while finishing a protracted migratory journey that spans thousands of miles! So how do birds manage to fly at altitudes this high?

Some birds can fly at high altitudes because of a variety of unique adaptations. For instance, they can maximize the amount of oxygen available because they have a superior hypoxic ventilatory response and are already acclimated to high altitudes.

Certain birds, like the Rüppells vulture and certain hummingbirds, also have red blood cells that contain specialized hemoglobin, a protein with an extreme affinity for oxygen. Additionally, birds can “gulp” air down their powerful throats due to their larger, more elastic lungs, which are particularly useful for geese, swans, and ducks.

Another consideration is the temperature. At 30,000 feet, the temperature can drop as low as -48F, or -44 5C, which would freeze most animals to death in seconds. In addition to producing heat through their feathers, birds’ strong muscles also generate heat.

Certain hummingbirds have a unique type of hemoglobin that enables them to function at higher elevations.

How high do birds fly?

Most birds fly between 2,000 and 5,000 feet, which is a relatively low altitude (600 to 1525m). Of course, some species—like ostriches and penguins—never even leave the ground. Some stay only a few meters above the ground, hardly ever venturing above the tree canopy.

High altitude flying is more common among migrating birds, particularly if they are crossing mountain ranges. High-altitude flying is a useful tool for predatory birds like vultures and eagles, who use it to search vast regions for prey. While vultures, such as the Rüppells vulture, can soar up to over 35,000 feet, eagles typically soar at heights of about 10,000 feet!

Only three birds, the Rüppells vulture, the Common crane, and the Bar-Headed goose, are usually able to soar at altitudes over 30,000 feet. But many more can reach heights of between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, and a few can reach heights of 20,000 feet.

But it’s important to note that a large number of birds inhabit high altitudes. Small birds can fly easily at an altitude of 16,404 feet (5,000 meters), where they live, including hummingbirds and sparrows.

While only a small number of birds can fly continuously and nonstop at extremely high altitudes, many birds have the adaptations needed to live at high altitudes.

Bald Eagles are often spotted soaring high

How high can hummingbirds fly?

A large number of hummingbird species migrate enormous distances in relation to their body size. While the majority of hummingbird species prefer to remain near to the ground, some, like the Rufous hummingbird, must travel across mountain ranges.

A few rufous hummingbirds finish their 5,000 km migratory journey, which crosses the Rocky Mountains!

Furthermore, it is astonishing that ten different species of hummingbirds can be found in the Andes at elevations above 4,500 meters, given that these small birds have incredibly quick metabolisms. It was found by researchers that these hummingbirds require almost no oxygen to survive.

FAQ

Which bird Cannot fly high?

Flightless birds are birds that, through evolution, lost the ability to fly. There are over 60 extant species, including the well-known ratites (ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas, and kiwis) and penguins. The smallest flightless bird is the Inaccessible Island rail (length 12.5 cm, weight 34.7 g).

What bird can fly very high?

One Rüppell’s Vulture holds the record for the highest flying bird in the world, reaching heights of 11,300 meters (37,100 ft) to be exact.

How high can the birds fly?

Bird
Species
Maximum height
Rüppell’s vulture
Gyps rueppellii
11,300 metres (37,100 feet).
Common crane
Grus grus
10,000 metres (33,000 feet)
Bar-headed goose
Anser indicus
8,800 metres (29,000 feet)
Whooper swan
Cygnus cygnus
8,200 metres (27,000 feet)