How High Can Birds Fly?

Discover how high birds can fly and whether it's possible to spot one when you look out of an airplane window.

Mar 27, 2023By Donna Hobson
how high can birds fly

How high do you think birds can fly? 5,000, 10,000, 20,00 feet? The truth is that birds fly below 500 feet most of the time. However, there are exceptions to the rule, such as migration, see birds flying at much greater heights to take advantage of the thinner air and lack of resistance.

Discover which birds fly as high as airplanes and why they choose to do this. We'll examine the average flying height for a bird and introduce you to the world's top three highest fliers.

How High Does The Average Bird Fly?

gull in flight

Generally, birds fly relatively low in the sky and stay under 500 feet through most of the year. However, when they migrate, they gain altitude and soar much higher, with some reaching heights of 20,000 feet.

Birds mostly stick to these lower altitudes because it expends less energy than if they climb to a greater height. In addition, flying higher can expose a bird to several dangers, such as sharp winds and a hawk's vision.

What Is the Highest A Bird Can Fly?

ruppells griffon vulture in flight

When a bird migrates, it will generally begin its journey at around 5,000 feet and slowly climb up to 20,000 feet over time. Birds can fly at higher altitudes than mammals, such as bats, and could survive. This is because their lungs are specially adapted to extract more oxygen.

The highest-recorded flyer is the Ruppell's Griffon vulture. These incredible scavengers, named after the German naturalist Edmund Ruppell, are native to East Africa and can grow to lengths of more than 40 inches. Weighing as much as 9 kg, these birds feed on carrion, other birds, lizards, and insects.

Native habitats of the Ruppell's Vulture include woodlands, grasslands, and mountain ranges; they often construct nests on cliff faces.

It could be the elevated nests, or perhaps their excellent eyesight inspires the vulture to fly so high that it can quickly survey a large area. Experts do not yet have a definitive answer why this bird chooses such an elevated flight path, but the altitude was sadly confirmed by an airplane colliding with one of the vultures at 37,000 feet.

These birds can fly so high thanks to a protein alteration that allows efficient flight even in regions with lower pressure and oxygen levels.

Despite this impressive skill set, only 22,000 Ruppell's Vultures remain in the wild, making them critically endangered species. This is due to habitat loss, hunting, poisoning, and a decline in food sources. Fortunately, charities such as the Vulture Conservation Fund offer hope to these struggling species.

Can A Bird Fly Higher Than a Plane?

Airbus behind a flock of birds

The average plane flies between 33,000 - 42,000 feet, with an average altitude of about 35,500 feet. One of the reasons that planes fly at this height is to avoid birds (and other obstacles). Still, there are some birds than can surpass this height.

As previously mentioned, the Ruppell's Vulture is the highest flyer, reaching altitudes of 37,000 feet. Only two other birds have been proven to fly at over 30,000 feet: the Common Crane and the Bar-Headed Goose.

The Common Crane is the second-highest flyer in the world and can exceed altitudes of 33,000 feet. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, these impressive flyers can reach speeds of 40-55 km/h. In winter, they migrate from northeast Asia to India, and this is when they are likely to fly to great heights.

Their flying height isn't the only impressive thing about these birds - they also cover up to 250 miles in nonstop flight and 13,000 miles in a single year!

The Bar Headed Goose is most famous for its ability to soar at high altitudes. They possess a larger than average wing area-to-weight ratio than other geese, which experts believe may be the key to soaring to these magnificent heights.

During the Spring migration, the Bar Headed Goose can be observed flying over the peak of Mount Everest, and their powerful flight motion ensures that its heated wings stay ice-free even in sub-zero temperatures.

Other high flyers include the Andean Condor, which can reach a height of 18,000 feet, and the mallard duck, which can fly at altitudes of 21,000 feet. Impressively, even smaller birds, such as Hummingbirds, who live in Alpine regions, can fly at heights of 16,404 feet.

Why Do Some Birds Fly So High?

goose migration over the himalayas

The list of high-flying birds varies, but these incredible avians all have one thing in common. Their wingspan is longer (relative to their bodies) than other bird species. And it's these long wings that help them to generate enough lift to fly at great heights.

Of course, it's not just the climb that challenges these birds - it's less dense air (so the bird has to flap their wings harder), less oxygen (so metabolic demands increase), and cold temperatures (meaning they have to find inventive ways to keep their bodies warm.

In addition, the drier air means that these high-fliers lose more oxygen from breathing and evaporation than the average bird, making them more likely to suffer dehydration. That being said, the warmer air closer to the ground can just as easily lead to dehydration, which could be one of the reasons for the high altitudes.

Generally, birds fly high in the sky to minimize energy expenditure. If you think about it, planes fly around 36,000 feet to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. So, if you were a bird embarking on an extensive journey, you too, would want to gain the most distance with the least energy.

Another reason birds might soar to these heights is to look for food. They are less exposed to predators at that height, but thanks to their sharp vision, they can scour large expanses quickly in search of food.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.