Fiery Wings in Sky

If you’re close enough, the gusty waves produced from the flapping of a vulture’s wings can be quite palpable. Take, for example, Griffon Vultures. They are one of the largest species of vultures, weighing up to eleven kilos and having a wing span of over two meters. It is no easy task for creatures of their size to elevate (sometimes up to a kilometer in altitude) so frequently. However, as nature always does, the vulture found a solution.

In Season 1, Episode 3 of Conquest of the Skies, Attenborough describes the flight mechanism that allows vultures to take off with ease. These birds don’t wake up too early, as they need the sun to elevate into the skies. As the day warms up, patches of bare rock reflect the heat of the sun, forming columns of hot air known as thermals. In fact, the wings of these intricate creatures have been honed for millions of years, dating back to a branch of the dinosaurs that acquired feathers, to catch as much of the rising hot air as possible [1].

One problem with the use of thermals is that they aren’t always spacious; more often than not, vultures have to navigate through narrow strips of thermals to maximize airtime [2]. This requires the use of sharp turns and constant spiraling, which puts vultures in a bad position as their inner wings are barely catching any lift. This is not a favorable situation to be in, because it is very easy for a bird to fall from the sky. However, the vulture doesn’t have this problem because its wings have evolved to have special feathers at the end which can be splayed out [3]. As a result, each of the feathers act as an additional wing, which increases overall lift.

Notably, other large birds, such as eagles and white storks [4], utilize the same wing shape as vultures. . While it may not be apparent at first glance, evolution works its magic in the most creative ways!

by Raghavendra Pingali and Ken Saito

Conquest of the Skies, Season 1, Episode 3, starting at approximately 3:08


  1. Akos Z, Nagy M, Leven S & T Vicsek. 2010. Thermal soaring flight of birds and unmanned aerial vehicles. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 5(4): 045003.
  2. Thompson M, Cunningham S & A McKechnie. 2018. Interspecific variation in avian thermoregulatory patterns and heat dissipation behaviours in a subtropical desert. Physiology & Behavior, 188, 311-323.
  3.  Robert HG. 2010. Exploring bird aerodynamics using radio-controlled models. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 5(4): 045008.
  4. Nagy M, Couzin ID, Fiedler W, Wikelski M & Flack A. 2018. Synchronization, coordination and collective sensing during thermalling flight of freely migrating white storks. Philosophical Transactions., 373(1746): 20170011.

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