How do Birds Learn How to Fly?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Birds learn how to fly much like a human toddler learns to walk: a combination of instinct and practice. Not all birds are instinctive flyers, however. Flightless birds, such as penguins and ostriches, no longer have the instinct to imitate their airborne cousins. Newborns of bird species that do fly, such as pigeons or hummingbirds, have an innate sense that it is a natural act. Compare this to a human baby who instinctively understands that standing upright is a natural goal to achieve.

A flying hummingbird.
A flying hummingbird.

Most birds cannot fly until their muscle structure has had time to develop. In the meantime, the nest becomes their entire world. Baby birds are not responsible for food gathering or protection of the nest, so they generally develop a psychological dependence that must be overcome. Parent birds begin to teach their fledglings the importance of flying by remaining a short distance away from the nest during feeding. If the young birds are to survive, they must step away from the nest. Frequently, this means a few hard falls to the ground followed a long trip back to the safety of the nest.

Parent birds must slowly teach baby birds to become independent and learn to fly to find food.
Parent birds must slowly teach baby birds to become independent and learn to fly to find food.

All of this practice time, awkward as it may seem, does teach the fledgling about the mechanics of flight. Falls to the ground become more controlled as the young bird stretches out its wings, and short hops back to the nest become longer flights. Bird parents continue to encourage their brood to leave the nest for longer periods of time. Some species actually adopt a tough love policy, leaving the fledglings alone to develop their own instincts.

Birds like pigeons have an innate sense of flying as a natural act.
Birds like pigeons have an innate sense of flying as a natural act.

After a few weeks of practice and imitation, young birds learn more advanced flying techniques: how to use the wind for lift, how to spot rising thermals and how to make controlled landings. Eventually, all of these elements become instinctive and young birds can start families of their own. The teaching process begins anew as these birds teach their own young how to fly.

For birds, flying is an incredibly taxing exercise. Some bird experts compare it to human jogging times ten. Fortunately, many birds have air sacs that act as auxiliary lungs, and each breath a bird takes is much more concentrated than an equivalent human breath. Birds also have very well-developed pectoral muscles for constant wing motion and an exceptionally strong heart for endurance. Hollow bones reduce drag and the natural curve of the wings creates significant lift. Most birds are literally swimming through the air, using the weight of the air beneath them to keep them aloft.

Some birds, like ostriches, cannot fly and do not have the instinct.
Some birds, like ostriches, cannot fly and do not have the instinct.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


@lawnmowerman: Blue-fronted Amazons usually give up flying in captivity. They are natural climbers with an incredibly strong grip. Don't worry about your Amazon not flying. In fact, forcing it to fly may be harmful!


I found a baby bird today and it has all its feathers and is starting to fly. How long before it can fly on its own?


Yes, anon82696, birds (Crows and ravens) can catch the T-Virus.


We have taken in a blue fronted amazon about 14 months old. He is clearly overweight at just under a kilo. We are pretty sure that this bird has been basically cage bound until we took him in. The problem we have is he won't fly!

I liken it to a small child standing at the edge of the swimming pool, swaying back and forth but not making that final leap. How do we teach him to fly?

Help in the biggest possible way, please.


Penguins have not lost their inclination to 'fly'. Rather, they have adapted flying to produce motion through the water. When a penguin learns to swim, it adapts the same instincts that flying birds use to bootstrap their learning process. Penguins don't swim like most other animals. They fly through the water.


Can birds catch the T-Virus?


i have found a baby bird and she is very young and i don't know what to do.


i have found a nest with four baby birds in my bbq one day and there was a party with a lot of people so it was frequently being opened and two days later i haven't found the mother and figured out that maybe she left so i took a chance and fed the birds so it wouldn't starve. I fed the birds meat. is it better to feed them seeds? When will they be able to fly? Can they fly without a parent showing them?


I found a baby bird on my porch about three days ago. It had fallen from a nest in the column on the porch. I was unable to put the bird back into the nest. I made a ready make nest out of a bowl and filled it with tissue. The bird hardly has any feathers and I don't see the parents feeding the bird but I'm pretty sure they are because it is alert and going to the bathroom in the bowl. How long does it take for a bird to fly? I worry about stray cats finding the bird.


I found a bird egg and I was wondering how to tell if its alive?


My baby pigeon is able to fly short distances, but unable to ascend- how do they get back up to the nest? Will the mother take him back after a few days - I have been feeding him and giving him flying practice every day and he is getting stronger. Please advise - what now?


We just had two baby birds fall from a very high tree. Since we were unable to put them back, we placed them in a box and place the box on our trampoline. Fortunately,

mama bird continues to feed them. The good news is we have several lab retriever's that keep the neighborhood cats away. The bad news is we have lab retriever's, and I'm concerned when the babies try flying there may be? a problem. We keep the dogs in as much as possible. It has been about a week and the babies are doing good. Does anyone know how long it takes for birds to be ready to fly? They already had feathers when we found them.


so how do the baby birds get back into the nest after falling to the ground?

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