Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Winged Creatures

 Ask Your Weird Animal Questions flies right into facts about our winged brethren this week.

I love watching the frigatebirds in the skies above Key West—so elegant and it seems like they stay “afloat” forever. How high can they fly? —Jim Crescitelli via Facebook

The magnificent frigatebird, a distinctive black animal with an inflatable red throat pouch, spends most of its time in flight over the open ocean, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web. Sounds exhausting, but it’s easy for these birds because of their enormous wingspan, which ranges from 35 to almost 91 inches (90 to 230 centimeters).

A photo of a group of Magnificent Frigate birds in the Galapagos Islands.
Frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) fly at sunset in the Galapagos Islands. Photograph by Frans Lanting, Corbis

This wingspan enables them to glide long distances on updrafts and use their tails to maneuver. According to a 2003 study in the journal Nature, frigatebirds are capable of soaring to heights of 8,202 feet (about 2,500 meters). (Related: “Highest Flying Bird Found; Can Scale Himalaya.”)

Having seen them in chimneys, not to mention jumping into people’s boats, I’ve often wondered: How far do peacocks fly?

I used author’s prerogative to investigate this video on ARKive of Indian peacocks gliding spectacularly across the sky. I asked Jessica Yorzinski of Indiana’s Purdue University, who has studied these peacocks in India, what they’re like on the wing. (Related: “Peacock Surprise: What Females Like in a Male.”)

“In India, in their native habitat, they roost up in the tallest trees, so they have no trouble getting up into the treetops,” she said.

Since it’s not a migratory species, the Indian peacock doesn’t fly long distances, opting for short glides or hops. For instance, the birds might fly to a high plateau to rest or to avoid land predators.

The peacock’s long tail reduces maneuverability and flight power—Yorzinski pointed to a 2009 study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B showing that either increasing or decreasing natural tail length of birds in experiments made flight more difficult.

How big was the largest flying dinosaur? —Franklin Rice Ratliff via Facebook

It’s a very current question about a very ancient bird: Just last week Brian Switek wrote about the announcement of Changyuraptor yangi, a dinosaur “that sets the size record for some of the very earliest feathery fliers.”

C. yangi measured 4.3 feet (1.3 meters) long with tail feathers nearly a foot (0.3 meter) long. (See “Long Tail Feathers Adorned Four-Winged Dinosaur.”)

Update: In a subsequent Weird Animal Question column Mark Witton of the University of Portsmouth noted that Changyuraptor yangi was a glider, not a flier and that something like the condor-like Argentavis, with a 23 ft (7m) wingspan would be the largest flying dino.

I used to release owls back into the wild and noticed their eyes were like a camera lens. It seemed the owl could move his eyes with a much wider range than humans. What’s up with owl eyes? —Ruth Wayne Garry via Facebook

We couldn’t fit this question into last week’s column on animal eyes, but owls are so amazingly cool we couldn’t resist a reprise. Jacqueline Pearce of the University of Missouri in Columbia explained that owls’ sharp binocular vision is partly due to the large surface area of their retina. In fact, owl eyes can’t move in their sockets.

A photo of a Eurasian Eagle-Owl in the Netherlands
A Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) in Didam, Netherlands, in 2008. Photograph by Dirk-Jan van Unen, Buiten-beeld, Minden Pictures/Corbis

“Owls have very large eyes; they’re very tightly put into their sockets, and the muscles are not well developed around the eye”—which is why they turn their heads in that amazing fashion. (Related: “How Owls Twist Their Heads Almost 360 Degrees.”)

The nighttime birds also have more rods—light-sensing cells—in their retinas, compared with birds that are active during the day, according to Pearce. An owl’s vision is “reasonably good,” but their acute hearing helps them hunt at night, she said. (See video: “Super Hearing Helps Owls Hunt.”)

Got a question about the weird and wild animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook.


Meet the Author
Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at