Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

For The Birds

Birds have more to teach us than we could ever learn

THE BEST FLIGHT INSTRUCTORS. Birds, such as this bald eagle, outperform aviators in most flight maneuvers.
I’ve been an accidental student of ornithology for as long as I’ve been alive—and that’s a long time. Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, provided me with a huge selection of birds, from ducks and geese to swans, sea gulls and snoodled gannets. They’d migrate north and south during spring and fall, landing in the local lakes and rivers of south central Alaska to rest and refuel for the long flights ahead.

Perhaps best of all, I used to ride my bike down to Lake Spenard, the world’s largest seaplane base then and now, to watch birds and floatplanes transition from water to sky and back again. I’d monitor the flocks of ducks and geese in impromptu short-field competition with Cessna 180s, Super Cubs, Maules and Beavers, all on floats.

The birds always won. One look at the competitors explained why. In contrast to the graceful wings and swept body of a mallard duck, even the most modern seaplane looked clumsy and crude, like something Klingons might fly into battle.

I studied and photographed birds while in high school (at the risk of being considered a dweeb), read what I could about how birds fly and compared that with man’s primitive efforts to lift himself into the sky.

Living in Alaska made ornithology an easy, if unlikely, preoccupation for a teenage boy whose other dominant interests were (predictably) target shooting, cars and, of course, girls. Funniest thing, I never mentioned to my friends that I was into bird watching. If I had, they probably would have assumed I was using the British term for “women.”

I learned that birds are aerodynamic marvels the likes of which mere man can probably never hope to emulate. Though there are no rotary-winged birds, many of the existing varieties can lift off with virtually a zero takeoff roll, then land (water?) in the same distance. With the benefit of wings that can articulate almost infinitely through sweep, dihedral and angle of attack, birds can perform maneuvers that would leave even Patty Wagstaff and Sean Tucker green with envy.

I lived in Venice, Fla., for a year back in the late ’60s and used to walk down to the beach to watch seagulls fight for the bread crumbs I’d take with me. I was always amazed at how quickly a totally empty beach, with nary a bird in sight, could turn into an instant seagull convention after I threw the first handful of crumbs into the air.

1 Comment

Add Comment