How Do Birds Drink on the Fly?

For swallows and swifts, it's a real athletic feat.

This story is brought to you by BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

As a Tree Swallow swoops gracefully across a marsh, its long, slender wings glint a deep, iridescent blue. It glides close to the surface, tips its head down, and lightly skims the pond for a second with its beak open. Drinking—on the wing.

Many birds drink while standing: dipping their beaks into a pond or birdbath, taking a beakful, and then tossing their heads back to swallow the water. And most birds can’t pull off a daredevil, in-flight drink because they just aren’t built for it. Swallows are such virtuosos of flight that their skimming the pond almost looks like showing off.  

Drinking on the wing suits swallows best. They walk awkwardly on the ground on rather short legs, and their long wings are pretty cumbersome. So it’s far more efficient to grab a drink on the glide. This adaptation holds true for some other birds, too.  

Common Nighthawks are much bigger than swallows, with a two-foot wingspan. They take their water in flight, too. While swifts, with an even longer-winged structure than swallows, have such short legs that they never land on the ground, and so a sip on the wing is all but essential.  

To download this podcast, go to

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Tree Swallow recorded by Gerrit Vyn; Tree Swallow and Common Nighthawk recorded by W L Hershberger; Chimney Swift recorded by G B Reynard

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Dominic Black

Written by Bob Sundstrom

© 2016 Tune In to     May  2016     Narrator: Michael Stein