Bird Watcher's General Store

What Flies Higher Than a Plane? - 10/20/06


Dear Bird Folks,

What is the highest flying bird and at what altitude does it fly?

- George, Chatham, MA

Come on George,

You can tell us why you want to know what the highest flying bird is. I know you just didn't wake up this morning wondering about high flying birds. You must have a good reason for asking. Can we guess? Are you practicing for being on Jeopardy? Did you get into an argument with your brother-in-law? Brother-in-laws love to argue about anything. Or is this some kind of bar bet you have going? That's it, it's a bar bet. Right? I knew it. I don't think I've ever been in a bar when someone wasn't discussing birds. The two most commonly discussed bar birds always seem to be Grey Goose and Wild Turkey. I've never understood why.

Every week we write a column about birds and some people stop flipping the pages long enough to read what we've written. Then there are others who can't flip past us fast enough. They think, "Stupid birds. I'm not going to waste my time reading about birds when I could be looking for yard sale ads." Fine. There is nothing wrong with taking someone else's clutter, paying for it, and jamming it into your own house. But even those people with no interest in "stupid birds" would be impressed if they took the time to learn about some of the extraordinary feats birds can do; feats that are so amazing that they even rival the excitement of a yard sale. How amazing? Check this out.

Africa's Ruppell's Vulture owns the title of the world's highest flying bird. How high would you guess that this bird has been known to fly? 100 feet high? Nah, 100 feet would be nothing. Even I could do that. How about 500 feet high? 1000 feet? Not even close. How high? Get ready to rub your eyes. The Ruppell's Vulture has been known to fly an astonishing seven miles above the earth. That's right, seven miles up. How do we know the bird was flying that high? Because it was up so high that it smacked into a passing jet liner.

When I heard about how high this vulture was recorded flying, my first thought was, "How are birds able to survive at that height? Wouldn't oxygen be a little thin up there?" Yes, it is thin. Humans wouldn't survive very long at that height. I know I wouldn't. I visited Denver once and I needed to take a cab just to cross the street. When we breathe, air enters our lungs and then is quickly pushed right back out, leaving a temporary void. However, most birds have a way of moving air into their lungs at the same time they are exhaling. Thus, birds always have fresh oxygen in their lungs, even when they breath out. Also, some birds have a special type of blood that allows the birds to absorb the oxygen more quickly.

The next question is, what in the world was this vulture doing up so high? As we know vultures aren't big time hunters, they scavenge. Each day they scour the countryside looking for something yummy that has recently died. To find food vultures float high overhead and use their amazing eyesight to spot any creature that didn't make it through the night. To gain height the birds float on warm columns of air called "thermals." Thermals, caused by the heat of the sun, raise up well above the earth's surface. A thermal may carry a bird a mile or two high, but seven miles does seem to be the exception. That vulture must have been thinking "this is my lucky day" when it hitched a ride on such a high-riding thermal. It was indeed the bird's lucky day. At least it was until it got smacked by the plane.

When carrion is spotted, the birds descend from their lofty heights, often meeting other vultures on the way. A group of vultures can easily strip all the meat off of a dead antelope in a matter of minutes. Unlike the stubby-necked Turkey Vultures that we have in our country, these African vultures have very long goose-like necks. The longer neck helps the bird reach deep inside a dead creature's body cavity and grab all the best parts, like the delicious gallbladder, before those creepy hyenas steal it from them.

While this vulture holds the height record, George, it doesn't mean that other birds haven't flown higher. It just means this is the highest documented flight. It also doesn't mean that this particular vulture hadn't flown even higher. For all we know the bird was on its way down when it was struck by the plane. By the way, in case you are wondering, the plane landed safely at an African airfield. And even though the vulture didn't survive, the bird's luggage was fine. It turned up three months later, safe and sound.... at an airport in Cleveland.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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