Birds & Birding

Learning to Fly

June 14, 2017

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Osprey chicks practice flight. Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Learning to fly even with wings is a challenge.

It’s been about seven weeks since hatching and the Nature Conservancy’s Osprey Cam chicks have been flapping their wings since they were small and fluffy – this behavior strengthens their flight muscles even before they have any chance of take-off. Now that they’re juveniles almost ready to leave the nest with a full set of flight feathers, training will get more serious – almost like cross fit for birds.

The nest makes a small and very crowded gym now that the chicks are as big as Josie & Elbert, but the chicks must build up muscle mass and they do it by spreading out their wings and flapping – so much flapping.

One day, not long from now, suddenly one of them will lift up into the air as they are working out. Much like a person who has practiced for weeks to flip a tire and finally manages to pull it off, the ospreys often look surprised at their own success – at least it seems that way to bird fan and ecologist Matt Pelikan.

Chicks will continue practicing lift off in place or for very short distances within the nest or onto a nearby platform support before they try out a larger distance (for instance to a nearby tree).

This juvenile just about has the hang of it. Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

The shape of birds’ wings combined with the thrust from their muscles allows birds to achieve lift. Not entirely unlike an airplane, osprey wings are shaped such that with the right amount of thrust and when the wing is held in the right position, pressure above the wing is less than the pressure below; this pressure differential lifts the bird into the air.

Learning to fly is only the first step – learning to hunt is even more of a challenge since ospreys must dip their feet into the water and fly away with a struggling fish. So, Josie and Elbert will still be around feeding the chicks until they’re ready for more advanced hunting techniques.

This adult makes it look effortless, but catching and carrying a large fish is a difficult and dangerous task. Note how the fish is aerodynamically aligned. Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Now that they’re the same size, you’ll have to watch the markings to differentiate the adults from their offspring. Juvenile ospreys have more mottled white mixed in with the brown feathers on their backs and if you get a close look, you can see that they have red eyes.

Within a few weeks the juveniles will start making hunting forays of their own, but they will return to the nest where their parents will supplement their diet. One day, when the chicks are mostly capable of supporting themselves, Josie and Elbert will migrate while the chicks remain in Alabama to practice their hunting skills before setting out south. The length of time that the chicks remain varies and often aligns with birth order – you’ll probably see the youngest chick alone in the nest for a while after the older siblings have flown south. This is normal.

Practice makes perfect. The photographer notes that this juvenile dove into the lake about 10 times before going to rest in a nearby tree. Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Once the chicks leave, they’re on their own, hunting for themselves – likely in South America where many ospreys spend the winter. Some will stay there for several years before returning north to look for a mate, others will come back to the US next year. Most young birds will not be successful in finding a mate on their first try, but if they can survive another year or two, they have a good chance to establish a nest. Then they will return each year to raise a brood.

Keep watching Osprey Cam to see the hard work that goes into the magic of flight!

Please consider making a donation to The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico. Your support will help us create healthy habitats for creatures like osprey.

Success! Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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