Can birds fly over the ocean?

Birds have the amazing ability to fly through the sky, using their wings to generate lift and soar to great heights. This allows them to migrate long distances, sometimes over oceans and other large bodies of water. But how exactly do birds manage to fly such immense distances over the open ocean, often non-stop for hundreds or even thousands of miles?

Quick Answer: Yes, most birds are physically capable of flying long distances over the ocean through adaptations like lightweight bodies, large wing spans, stored fat reserves, and navigation abilities. However, the feat requires immense energy and places birds at risk of exhaustion or being blown off course. Many species fly together or in short hops to survive ocean crossings.

How Do Birds Fly in General?

To understand how birds can fly over oceans, first it helps to review how avian flight works in general. Bird wings are specially adapted to generate both thrust and lift during flight. As a bird flaps its wings, it pushes air downward behind its wings. This creates an upward reaction force called lift that counters the bird’s weight and enables it to become airborne.

The shape of a bird’s wings also contributes to flight. Most birds have wings that are slightly curved on top and flatter on the bottom. This shape deflects air downward more effectively as the wings flap, generating more lift. The wings are also tapered, which reduces drag and allows smoother control of airflow.

Many other anatomical adaptations enable powered flight in birds:

  • Lightweight, hollow bones reduce body weight.
  • A large breastbone and flight muscles power the wings.
  • Streamlined bodies and fusiform shapes minimize drag.
  • Tail feathers provide stability and assist steering.

In addition, birds have incredibly complex respiratory and cardiovascular systems to meet the high metabolic demands of flying. Their efficient, two-way breathing allows for continuous oxygen supply during flight. High red blood cell counts transport oxygen quickly. An enlarged heart and strong arteries distribute oxygenated blood at high rates needed for sustained energy production.

These specialized adaptations allow most birds to take flight and fly medium to long distances. But crossing hundreds or thousands of miles of open ocean poses additional challenges that require further adaptations.

Challenges of Transoceanic Flight

Flying over the ocean for extreme distances pushes birds to their limits. Here are some of the main obstacles birds face when flying over oceans:

Lack of Resting Places – Unlike over land, birds cannot stop to rest on trees, land, or most ocean surfaces. They must fly continuously for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Few Navigation Cues – Featureless ocean provides less visual guidance. Birds cannot follow coastlines, forests, mountains, etc. They rely more on stars, the sun, and magnetic fields.

Unfavorable Winds – Headwinds slow progress, while crosswinds can blow birds off course. Tailwinds assist some migrations.

Exhaustion of Energy Reserves – Flying requires immense energy. Birds need large fat stores and efficient use to avoid running out of fuel mid-flight.

Dehydration – Options for drinking water are very limited over the open ocean. Some birds carry water absorbed in their feathers.

Predation – Ocean birds like gulls, albatrosses, and jaegers threaten exhausted migrants.

Disorientation – After long flights, birds can become confused and lost with fewer visual landmarks.

Bad Weather – Storms like hurricanes can push birds dangerously off established migration routes.

Crossing huge oceans requires specialized abilities and behaviors to overcome these obstacles.

Adaptations that Enable Oceanic Flight

Birds exhibit amazing anatomical and behavioral adaptations that allow them to accomplish the incredible feat of transoceanic migration:

Lightweight Bodies

Birds that fly long distances over water tend to have very light body weights and wingspans. The larger surface area of long wings provides more lift for their body weight. Lightweight bodies also allow birds to carry more stored fat relative to their mass. Here are some examples:

Species Body Weight Wingspan
Arctic Tern 100 grams 76-80 cm
Bar-tailed Godwit 264 grams 65 cm
Bermuda Petrel 336 grams 91 cm

Fat Fuel Reserves

Birds preparing for transoceanic flights purposefully increase their fat stores, nearly doubling their body weight. This provides more onboard energy reserves. The pectoral muscles that power flight get some of their energy aerobically from fats. Stored fats also provide insurance if a bird gets blown off course and needs to extend its flight.

Streamlined Body Shapes

Migrating seabirds exhibit very hydrodynamic, tapered shapes. Their fuselages are often cylindrical with narrow, pointed wings. This reduces drag from wind resistance and allows more efficient long-distance flight. Examples include petrels, shearwaters, jaegers, and albatrosses.

Soaring and Gliding

Some ocean birds rely heavily on soaring and gliding to conserve energy on migration. Albatrosses are masters, gliding long distances over wave troughs and ridges without flapping. This saves tremendous effort and only requires intermittent flapping to gain altitude.

Foraging in Flight

Seabirds may forage on fish, squid, plankton, and other prey during ocean crossings. This provides extra nutrition to power continued flight. Northern gannets, for example, plunge dive for fish mid-flight.

Salt Glands

Marine birds have specialized glands near their nostrils that filter excess salt from the bloodstream. These enable them to drink seawater and maintain fluid levels on ocean crossings.

Waterproof Plumage

Oil secreted from the uropygial gland near a bird’s tail coats feathers with water resistance. This prevents plumage from getting waterlogged during long ocean flights.

Navigation Abilities

Ocean migrants use the sun’s position and stars to stay on course during day and night. Some also sense magnetic fields imprinted in their brains to determine direction. Shearwaters likely use their acute sense of smell to follow windborne chemical cues at sea.

Flocking Behavior

Many species migrate together in large flocks over water. Flock mates can provide some wind buffering and guide disoriented birds. Being in a flock may also deter seabird predators.

Short Hop Flights

Rather than flying extreme distances nonstop, some birds make ocean crossings through shorter hops with stopovers. Many shorebirds island-hop, resting and refueling along the way. Songbirds also tend to migrate in shorter flights, pausing on ships or oil platforms.

Notable Transoceanic Migrations

Some of the most incredible ocean migrations include:

Arctic Tern – Circles pole to pole each year from Arctic to Antarctic. Flies over 22,000 miles annually, often over Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Bar-tailed Godwit – nonstop trans-Pacific flight of 7,200 miles from Alaska to New Zealand, longest known nonstop bird migration.

Bermuda Petrel – Endangered seabird that returns to isolated Bermuda islands across 1,500 miles of open ocean from nesting grounds.

Blackpoll Warbler – Tiny songbird that makes nonstop transatlantic crossing of up to 2,500 miles from Canada to northeast South America.

Great Pacific Migration – Some Alaskan shorebirds migrate annually to Oceania islands using the East Asian-Australasian flyway over the Pacific.

Shearwaters – Species like Sooty Shearwaters complete figure eight loops through Atlantic and Pacific crossing equator twice per year.

Threats and Hazards Facing Migrating Birds

While specially adapted for ocean flying, migrating birds still face substantial threats during these journeys:

– Exhaustion – Fat/energy reserves may deplete mid-flight.

– Predators – Ocean birds like jaegers may pick off weak migrants.

– Bad weather – Storms push birds off course. Hurricanes have killed millions.

– Collisions – With vehicles, wind turbines, buildings, communication towers.

– Habitat destruction – Stopover and wintering grounds are disappearing.

– Light pollution – Artificial light can disorient migrating birds at night.

– Climate change – Altering temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns.

– Hunting – Some species are still hunted for food, feathers, or trophies.

Conservation measures like protecting stopover habitats, reducing collisions, and keeping artificial light low during migrations can help preserve vulnerable transoceanic migrants. But their amazing marathon flights will always pose immense challenges.


The ability of birds to fly tremendous distances over oceans is an awe-inspiring feat. It requires extensive adaptations like large wings, lightweight bodies, fat fuel storage, and navigational abilities. While all birds are built for flight, transoceanic migrants exhibit the most advanced specializations for navigating, energy efficiency, and predator avoidance across open seas far from land. They represent the ultimate endurance athletes of the animal kingdom. Though faced with anthropogenic threats, their marathon migrations will likely continue amazing human observers for generations to come.

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