Flapless flight: World’s largest soaring bird barely moves its wings while flying


New study shows how Andean condors can travel for long periods of time without needing to flap its wings often.


SWANSEA, Wales — Capable of reaching a weight of 33 pounds, the Andean condor is the world’s heaviest soaring bird, experts believe. Now, a new study reveals that this magnificent bird barely flaps its wings (roughly 1% of the time) while staying airborne for hours in some cases.

The study, conducted by researchers at Swansea University, uses data from flight recorders that were placed on a group of Andean condors. Those recorders kept note of every wing flap and twist as the birds flew in search of some food.

Originally, the research team set out to investigate how the condors’ flights efforts and patterns change with weather fluctuations. These subsequent findings, however, go a long way toward improving mankind’s understanding of how large birds soar and take flight.

Flapping is still very important for Andean condors; but most of their flapping takes place during liftoff. The study authors say 75% of the condors’ wing movements are associated with initially taking-off. Once the birds have hit the air, though, they can soar comfortably with little to no wing movements for hours. That’s the case even across a variety of weather or temperature conditions. One tracked condor was able to stay in the air a full five hours, covering more than 100 miles, without flapping once!

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“Watching birds from kites to eagles fly, you might wonder if they ever flap. This question is important, because by the time birds are as big as condors, theory tells us they are dependent on soaring to get around,” says Dr. Hannah Williams, of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior, in a release. “Our results revealed the amount the birds flapped didn’t change substantially with the weather. This suggests that decisions about when and where to land are crucial, as not only do condors need to be able to take off again, but unnecessary landings will add significantly to their overall flight costs.”

Moreover, all of the condors studied for this research were adolescents. So, it’s clear that condors enjoy the ability to soar for hours on end from a very young age.

The authors note that condors do run into some trouble when air currents weaken. When this happens, the birds flap their wings more than usual once nearing the end of their glide and approaching the ground.

“This is a critical time as birds need to find rising air to avoid an unplanned landing. These risks are higher when moving between thermal updrafts,” explains study co-author Dr Sergio Lambertucci. “Thermals can behave like lava lamps, with bubbles of air rising intermittently from the ground when the air is warm enough. Birds may therefore arrive in the right place for a thermal, but at the wrong time. This is a nice example of where the behavior of the birds can provide insight into the behavior of the air.”

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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