Low flying birds can be a sign of approaching inclement weather. The aerodynamic phenomenon known as the ground effect requires birds to fly low. Also, certain birds prefer flying low to the ground or cannot reach high altitudes.
What You'll Learn
It’s a phenomenon intriguing to some and frightening to others.
You look up to the sky and notice a flock of birds flying unusually low to the ground.
Maybe visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds flash through your mind, and you’re afraid they’ll descend upon you and start attacking at any moment.
Or, maybe you ask yourself, “I wonder why those birds are flying so low?”
Whatever your thoughts, there are a few reasons birds might fly low, and not a single one involves the birds attacking you.
Did you know people used to rely on birds for weather forecasts before the Weather Channel, Doppler Radars, and apps on your phone could give you real-time weather updates?
That’s right. You can use the flight altitude of birds to predict the weather, which technically makes these winged creatures some of the first meteorologists.
Farmers, for example, watch the behavior of roosters to determine if a storm is approaching. The old saying goes, “when a rooster crows before bed, he will awake with a watery head.” Approaching storms tend to make birds restless, so it’s believed that if a rooster can’t get rest and he’s crowing throughout the night, a storm is brewing on the horizon.
If birds fly low, then rain we shall know.
Weather can also directly affect a bird’s flight pattern. Low flying birds are generally associated with oncoming rain and approaching weather systems. Bad weather causes air pressure to drop. Air pressure affects birds’ ability to fly. When there’s a drop in air pressure, birds get forced to fly lower to the ground. Low air pressure causes the air to become heavier, making it hard for birds to reach high flying altitudes.
Birds will voluntarily choose to fly low to the ground when air pressure drops because that is where they can find the best air density.
The lack of birds flying in the sky can also signify storms approaching. Birds will stop flying to seek shelter from a storm. This occurrence is more noticeable around the coast since you will see an influx of birds flying inland.
The Ground Effect
Another reason birds might fly low to the ground is because of an aerodynamic phenomenon known as the ground effect. You will often see this occur with birds flying low over bodies of water.
The ground effect increases a bird’s lift and reduces drag because of the bird’s wings being less than a wingspan above the ground.
The air and pressure distortion between the bird’s wing and the ground will create additional lift and, at the same time, reduce drag, which allows the bird to exert less energy to stay aloft. Birds essentially coast upon a cushion of air.
The ground effect is a challenge for land birds to take advantage of because of the number of obstacles they encounter. If you spot a bird using the ground effect, it will most likely be over a body of water since there is nothing to impede its flight path. This occurrence is known as skimming.
Pelicans, seagulls, cormorants, ducks, and sandpipers are birds regularly seen skimming just above the water’s surface. By using skimming, they can coast for up to a hundred feet without flapping their wings once.
Birds also skim the water’s surface, looking for food. Many water birds are adept at quickly diving underwater to catch prey. For example, the black skimmer skims with its lower bill submerged slightly in the water, ready to snatch anything in its path.
Larger birds will also use the ground effect to help them land. Like a plane, the ground effect helps birds reduce their speed while remaining in flight until their feet touch down.
While some birds fly low due to weather conditions and others because of the ground effect, some species of birds lack the ability to reach high flying altitudes. These birds are classified as low-flying birds or sometimes even flightless birds.
Bluebirds are a group of medium-sized, brightly colored birds, part of the Passerines order. Found throughout North America, they are easily recognizable thanks to their blue hue.
Bluebirds fly moderately close to the ground and have a fast but irregular pattern to their wingbeats. Their diet consists mainly of insects, which they find by foraging on the ground. This could also explain why they prefer to fly at low altitudes.
Hummingbirds are small birds with a high metabolism and unique flight abilities. Most hummingbirds measure between three to five inches in height. They specialize in feeding on flower nectar and sometimes consume flying insects and spiders.
Hummingbirds can fly not only forward but also backward, side to side, and straight up. They are often spotted flying low to the ground since that is where they find their food source.
In fact, hummingbirds spend about 90% of their flight time hovering to feed, and even when they’re not eating, they prefer to fly just above the treetops to get protection from predators.
The Barn Swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world. They are distinguishable by their cobalt feathers and tawny chest.
You will usually see these graceful fliers cruising incredibly low to the ground, searching for food. They prefer to inhabit large, open areas where they can forage without any obstacles. Barn Swallows feed almost exclusively in flight, nearly hugging the ground as they look for flies and insects such as beetles, bees, and ants.
Woodpeckers are found almost everywhere worldwide, with most species inhabiting forests or woodlands. They are famous for their jack-hammer-like beaks, which they use to probe for insects in tree bark and chisel nest holes.
Woodpeckers fly very low to the ground, primarily because of their eating habits. Most woodpeckers spend their lives in trees, moving along trunks, looking for food. They don’t need to reach high-flying altitudes, so they tend to move from tree to tree, foraging for insects, fruits, and berries.
It’s Normal to See Birds Flying Low
The next time you spot a bird flying low, don’t panic. You might be witnessing a species of bird that naturally prefers to fly at low altitudes, a bird conserving its energy by using the ground effect, or a storm could be approaching…better bring an umbrella, just in case.
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I am Bryan Powell and I own BirdHour.com. I love bird watching; in fact, I have a parakeet of my own. I enjoy spending time outdoors and observing the natural world around me. This website is a means of sharing my passion for birds with others who may be interested in this activity.