May 28, 2024 at 3:26 pm

How Did We Find Out How High A Bird Can Really Fly? A Rüppell’s Vulture Once Ran Into A Commercial Aircraft.

by Trisha Leigh

Source: Shutterstock

It can seem like birds are up so high they’re reduced to tiny specks in our vision, and we know – tragically, we know they can fly at least as high as an airplane (at certain altitude) – but how high is high?

Let’s find out!

The highest confirmed altitude was a Rüppell’s vulture that ran into a commercial aircraft at 37,000 feet.

The aircraft landed safely and the bird was identified by 5 complete and 15 partial feathers.

Rüppell’s vultures are social birds native to the Sahel region of Africa. They form monogamous pair bonds, caring for chicks for the first 150 days of their lives.

Source: Shutterstock

They’re also critically endangered. They are being threatened by habitat loss, hunting, and a lack of carrion on which to feed.

They’re also being poisoned in East Africa due to the ubiquitous use of a pesticide called carbofuran and a drug called diclofenac.

The latter is an anti-inflammatory used by veterinarians, but is fatal to the birds if they ingest a treated animal.

The birds travel between Zimbabwe, Senegal, and Ethiopia in Africa, and have occasionally been spotted as far north as Spain.

They grow to about 33-38 inches in height and have no feathers on their heads, probably because they stick their whole heads inside whatever they’re eating at the time.

Their wings span between 7 and 8 feet, but they mostly drift and glide in flight, soaring as they search for prey.

The recorded event of one flying at 37,000 feet was likely an anomaly, since birds typically need more oxygen than is available at that height.

Source: Shutterstock

The common crane (Grus grus) has been recorded flying at 32,800 feet and the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) has been spotted 24,000 feet up. Those birds have larger lungs in order to cope with the lack of oxygen.

No other bird has been spotted near 37,000 feet, though, so that vulture will likely hold the record for a while.

That said, I doubt it made death-by-plane-engine worth it.

If you thought that was interesting, you might like to read about 50 amazing finds on Google Earth.