What Is an Aerial Bird?

What makes some birds better fliers?

Barn Swallow in Flight

Derek Keats / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A truly aerial bird is a type of bird that thrives when airborne, accomplishing many essential activities in the air and spending much of its life in flight. While all birds, except for flightless species, rely on their wings a great deal, aerial birds are flight specialists and have adapted their behavior to do many activities while remaining in flight. They also have a variety of other physical and behavioral adaptations that support a life lived primarily in the air.

What Aerial Birds Do While Flying

Aerial birds do many things in flight that other birds must land or perch to do. Typical activities that these flying dynamos do easily in the air include:

  • Feeding: Aerial birds catch prey in flight, often swallowing it whole without landing to consume their meal, though their flight path may be disrupted briefly as they feed.
  • Drinking: While some aerial species do not drink regularly, instead, they derive moisture from their prey, others will dip their bills into a water surface while in flight to get a drink.
  • Bathing: These birds often bathe by skimming the surface of the water to wet their plumage and may shake or jostle their feathers in flight to dislodge excess water.

Fun Facts

Aerial birds take advantage of strong air currents to aid their efficient, often acrobatic flight, though the type of flight style will vary for different species. Some birds stay aloft with very little wing motion, soaring effortlessly for hours, while others dart and dive about, twisting and turning to take advantage of every small change in the surrounding air.

Aerial Bird Adaptations

In addition to their flight excellence, aerial birds share several other characteristics that make them even more adept in the air, such as:

  • Slender, streamlined bodies that maximize flight efficiency, along with unusually lightweight skeletons and other adaptations for easier, lengthy flight.
  • Long, pointed wings that aid flight agility and create extra lift for added stamina. Some species also have long tails or tail streamers that help to steer through acrobatic antics.
  • Typically carnivorous diets, though the prey taken will vary with different species. Some aerial birds are insectivorous, while others are often piscivorous.
  • Less developed feet that may be insufficient for walking or upright perching and many of these birds cling to vertical surfaces instead. Others may have more developed feet but can be awkward and ungainly on land, despite their grace and ease in the air.

Types of Aerial Birds

While most birds are adept in the air, species that are primarily aerial include:

  • Albatrosses
  • Frigatebirds
  • Martins
  • Nighthawks
  • Nightjars
  • Petrels
  • Shearwaters
  • Swallows
  • Swifts

Other birds that display many aerial characteristics but are slightly more adapted to life on land as well as on the wing include terns, gulls, skimmers, and pratincoles. Still, other species, such as hummingbirds, soaring hawks, and vultures, share some traits with aerial birds but cannot be considered fully aerial because, despite their flight prowess, they do not complete other life activities in the air.

Aerial Threats

It may seem that any birds that are such extraordinary fliers ought to be able to fly away from threats and dangerous situations, but that isn't the case. Because aerial birds are most comfortable in the air, they often face strong hazards on land, where they are less adaptable. Invasive predators in nesting areas, as well as the loss of suitable habitat that can accommodate these birds' unique needs, are the most common threats. Other threats include loss of food sources due to pesticide sprays or overfishing, as well as collisions with buildings, wind turbines, and other obstacles.

What We Learn From Acrobatic Birds

Because these birds are such flight experts, their flying styles are often studied by aeronautical and mechanical engineers. Aerial birds have been instrumental in developing many different flying vehicles and machines, from commercial aircraft to remote-controlled drones, as well as planning the best flight routes for aircraft. The same principles that have been learned from studying these birds in flight have also been applied to streamlining land-based vehicles, such as reducing drag on cars and trucks, as well as making more efficient use of wind energy.


(rhymes with "prairie hill herd," "merry till third," and "sherry fill curd")