You Won’t Believe How Long This Amazing Bird Can Stay Aloft

Of course, the great frigatebird can eat and sleep on the wing.
Do I have to come down now? No, I don't!
Do I have to come down now? No, I don't!
Reinhard Dirschlerl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The world's longest commercial airline flight covers more than 8,800 miles and lasts more than 17 hours. That's a dreadfully long time -- especially if you're flying coach and you forgot to bring your noise-canceling headphones.

But a flight like that is nothing for the great frigatebird. This remarkable seabird (Fregata minor) can stay aloft for weeks on end, covering hundreds of miles a day and eating and sleeping on the wing.

We know this because scientists spent years tracking dozens of frigate birds that were fitted with lightweight solar-powered sensors. The sensors collected data on the birds' altitude and GPS coordinates as well as their heart rate and even the frequency with which they flapped their wings.

The new research, which was published Friday in the journal Science, found that the birds could stay aloft for up to 56 days straight.

The long time in the air came as a surprise. As lead researcher Henri Weimerskirch of the Chize Center for Biological Studies in France told Popular Mechanics, "It was known that frigatebirds could stay several days aloft, but that they can stay [aloft for] two months is completely unexpected."

Other birds can stay aloft for even longer stretches. The alpine swift, for instance, can fly for more than 200 days without touching down. But Weimerskirch said those birds are too small to be fitted with the kinds of sensors used in the latest research.

As you might expect, the data also revealed that frigatebirds are fantastic gliders, flapping their wings just once every six minutes or so. The tracked birds spent most of their time at altitudes of 30 to 2,000 meters, sometimes soaring to 4,000 meters (which is nearly 2.5 miles high).

To make the most of helpful air currents, the birds weren't afraid to fly straight into clouds -- another big surprise. Weimerskirch told HuffPost that was "very unexpected in view of the turbulence" in clouds and the freezing temperatures at such high altitudes.

Great frigatebirds grow to more than 3 feet in length, with a wingspan measuring 7.5 feet. They eat mostly flying fish and nest on islands in the Pacific, Indian and South Atlantic oceans -- that is, when they're not flying high up in the sky.

Maybe think about that the next time you're up in the clouds.

Beautiful Birds