Get smart curated videos delivered to your inbox.   SUBSCRIBE
The Kid Should See This

Can birds teach us how to build better airplanes?

Vikram Baliga studies anatomy and movement of animals in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia. He examines how birds use their wings to generate force and carry them through the sky. Truly understanding the mechanics requires hands-on study — so Baliga sources bird cadavers from museum collections at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.


In this PBS Terra video, Vikram Baliga explains why he’s so curious about how animals perform “completely crazy” acrobatics in the air, or how some species (like Common Swifts) are able to stay aloft for months at a time.

Baliga also demonstrates how the “wrists” and “elbows” hidden within different species of bird wings help them achieve different styles of flight.

It sounds morbid, but with a closer look, humans can learn how to build better aircraft or automobiles, using superior natural design informed by millions of years of bird evolution.

He explains more about the findings in the Cosmos article titled Birds Wing It In Many Ways:

The flying capabilities derive from the underlying skeleton; “it’s all in the shapes of the bones and how the bones interact,” Baliga says. “We found that nature has consistently reshaped the skeleton so that the range of motion evolves in concert with the evolution of flight and body size…”

The wings of species that flap and bound, like finches (Fringillidae) and thrushes (Turdidae) for instance, have joints that allow a lot of freedom of movement.

In contrast, birds like eagles (Accipitridae) that glide and soar have a very limited range of motion.

“The shapes of the bones in a bald eagle’s wrist help restrict its wing’s freedom of movement,” says Baliga, “which could be important to keeping steady posture during gliding and soaring.”

Species like the murre (Uria aalge), that swim and propel themselves underwater, have even stronger restrictions to bending and twisting their wings, which might help the birds use them like a paddle.

Vikram Baliga
Watch these videos about flying and wings next:
• Slow-motion pigeon flight
Why peregrine falcons are the fastest animals on earth
• Gannets Diving for Fish
• Stanford’s one-of-a-kind wind tunnel for birds & drones
• The silent flight superpower of a stealthy predator: The Owl
Birds gliding through helium bubbles reveal an aerodynamic trick

Also: Emperor Penguins Speed Launch Out of the Water

This Webby award-winning video collection exists to help teachers, librarians, and families spark kid wonder and curiosity. TKSST features smarter, more meaningful content than what's usually served up by YouTube's algorithms, and amplifies the creators who make that content.

Curated, kid-friendly, independently-published. Support this mission by becoming a sustaining member today.

🌈 Watch these videos next...

Can squids fly?

Rion Nakaya

Weevils, katydids, an assassin bug, & other insects fly in slow-mo

Rion Nakaya

Paper airplane aerodynamics explained by a world record-setting designer

Rion Nakaya

Insects Take Flight: Rare slow-motion footage from the Ant Lab

Rion Nakaya

Tilly the Golden Eagle soars above the Scottish Highlands

Rion Nakaya

Birds gliding through helium bubbles reveal an aerodynamic trick

Rion Nakaya

Bird Flight for Animators

Rion Nakaya

Like Feathered Fighter Jets: Peregrine Falcons

Rion Nakaya

Why do some birds fly in v-formation?

Rion Nakaya