We have many wonderful volunteers at the Dickinson County Nature Center, and one of regular front desk helpers loves to bring in articles with interesting animal facts.
The last article she brought in from “Smithsonian” magazine told that the highest bird flight ever recorded was by the Ruppell’s griffon, a vulture native to Africa. It’s flight was documented at 37,000 feet when it was sucked into a commercial aircraft engine in November 1973 over Ivory Coast.
First, I can’t imagine what that felt like on a plane. Second, that inspired me to start looking up how high other birds fly.
The second-highest flight documented is the common crane, which is known to fly across the Himalayan Mountains at about 33,000 feet. Flying this high helps them to avoid predators such as eagles.
Bar-headed geese have been seen at 29,500 feet over the Himalayas, and whooper swans have flown at heights of 27,000 feet over Northern Ireland.
Mallard ducks are also among the highest flying creatures, because although they generally migrate at about 200-4,000 feet, a jet once struck one above Nevada at 21,000 feet in altitude. This was the highest documented flight ever by North American waterfowl.
Most birds fly below 500 feet, mainly because it saves energy and lessens the risk of danger. At higher heights birds are also at the mercy of winds and keen-eyed predators like hawks.
However, during migration, birds will fly higher. Higher up, birds avoid dehydration and overheating during the long trip due to the cooler air.
Birds are specially adept at high flights because of the way they process oxygen. Humans reach their maximum altitude at about 26,246 feet, which is called the Death Zone. At this elevation, humans need assistance to breath or severe altitude sickness can set in. All birds have efficient gas-exchange in their lungs, increased oxygen diffusion in tissue and the ability for high aerobic activity, among other traits.
High-altitude birds also have even more adaptations, including effective breathing patterns, larger lungs and a special type of hemoglobin that makes oxygen intake more efficient.