All About Bird Wings and Flight Feathers

Wings, feathers and tails come in many shapes, but they all have a special function: keeping birds in the air.

It’s easy to marvel at the magic of a bird in flight, but understanding how it all works makes the process even more incredible. Here, we’ll explain how a typical bird wing functions, as well as explore the different types of bird wings and flight feathers you might spot on the visitors at your feeders and in your trees.

Psst — you won’t believe how quickly a hummingbird flaps its wings.

Different Types of Bird Wings

Form meets function in these four basic bird wing shapes, which allow for different types of flight.

Elliptical Bird Wings

Bnbbyc17 Francis HoeferCourtesy Francis Hoefer
Eastern bluebird 

These round, compact wings, commonly found on songbirds, are useful for quick takeoffs and hairpin maneuvering.

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Passive Soaring Bird Wings

Bnbbyc17 Clifford Farrell, bald eagle, wings, flightCourtesy Clifford Farrell

Most hawks and eagles have passive soaring wings. The long primary and secondary feathers associated with this wing shape make slow gliding easier.

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Active Soaring Bird Wings

bird wingsCourtesy Hiram Lenwood

Active soaring wings typically appear on gulls and seabirds. They tend to sport long, narrow wings that catch breezes.

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High Speed Bird Wings

Shutterstock 291773399 0001Courtesy Attila JANDI/Shutterstock
Arctic tern

You’ll find high-speed wings on fast birds, like swifts and terns. They have thin wings that aren’t quite as lengthy as those of soaring birds.

Different Types of Flight Feathers

The types of wings birds have might differ, but bird wing tails and feathers serve similar purposes. Below, we break down five types of flight feathers, their location on the bird and how they help the flier stay (or in some cases, stop!) soaring.

Shutterstock 231513913Keneva Photography/Shutterstock
Red-tailed hawk in flight
  • The leading edge, located at the upper edge of the wing, cuts through wind and lets the airflow travel on both sides of the wing.
  • Coverts include multiple rows of feathers both above and below. The upperside feathers often feature wing bars that make birds easier to identify.
  • Primaries are the long outer feathers located at the bottom edges of the bird’s wing, and they propel the bird forward and help it steer.
  • Secondaries are the inner flight feathers at the bottom of the wing, located closer to the bird’s body, and they help with lift and soaring.
  • Tail feathers are multipurpose tools! They are used for lift, steering, balancing and braking.

Next, learn about how birds fly and more commonly asked questions about birds.

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Rachel Maidl
Rachel Maidl is a senior editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She enjoys bird-watching in her urban backyard and local state parks, gardening for pollinators and researching new plants. Her favorite backyard visitors are the bumblebees that visit her sedums.