The Unfeathered Bird

500 years after Leonardo, the mechanics of bird flight still enthralls.

(Katrina van Grouw)


(Katrina van Grouw)

Not all ducks dive. Some—like the Mallard, above—feed at the water’s surface and, like swans, frequently “up-end” to reach food items in the shallows. The better the swimmer, the worse on land and in the air. So diving ducks, whose legs are shorter, farther back, and farther apart then those of surface-feeding ducks, need a pattering run across the surface in order to take off. Surface-feeding ducks, meanwhile, can spring vertically into the air with a minimum of effort and are agile and maneuverable in flight. Ducks have small wings compared to their heavy bodies, so gliding and soaring are out of the question. However, their long, broad, and relatively deeply keeled breastbone can accommodate large flight muscles, and with rapid, direct wingbeats they prove themselves powerful fliers.

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