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Four Common Wing Shapes in Birds

There are four general wing shapes that are common in birds: Passive soaring, active soaring, elliptical wings, and high-speed wings.

  • Passive soaring wings have long primary feathers that spread out, creating "slots" that allow the bird to catch vertical columns of hot air called "thermals" and rise higher in the air.  Examples of birds with this wing type include eagles, most hawks, and storks. These Bald Eagles are classic examples of birds with passive soaring wings:
Bald Eagle Flying
  • Active soaring wings are long and narrow, allowing birds to soar for a long time. However, these birds are much more dependent on wind currents than passive soaring birds. Examples of birds with this wing type are albarosses, gulls, and gannets. These California Gulls show good examples of the active soaring wing type:
Gulls Flying
  • Elliptical wings are good for short bursts of high speed. While they allow high speed, the speed cannot be maintained. Examples of birds that have this wing type are crows, ravens, blackbirds, sparrows, and thrushes such as the American Robin. These Common Ravens are good examples of birds with elliptical wings:
Ravens Flying
  • High-speed wings are long and thin, but not nearly as long as birds with active soaring wings. As the name suggests, birds with this wing type are incredibly fast, but unlike those with elliptical wings, these birds can maintain their speed for a while. Examples of birds that have this wing type are swifts, ducks, falcons, terns, and sandpipers. This Forster's Tern is a good example of a bird with high-speed wings.
Tern Flying