Birds may have the most recognizable silhouettes in the sky, and there’s no question why. They’ve fascinated people for hundreds of years, and none more so than those with especially long wings that make for a very distinctive outline. Long wings are especially helpful for migrating and soaring birds, as they allow them to stay up longer and with less effort on thermal drafts. To help us better appreciate these gorgeous birds here’s a list of 21 birds with long wingspans, a few of which you may even get to see in your own backyard.
21 Birds with Long Wingspans
1. Whooping Crane
Scientific name: Grus americana
Length: 4.3-5.2 feet
Wingspan: 7.5 feet
The Whooping Crane used to be abundant and had a traditional range of all of North America. It’s the tallest bird of the New World, with males standing nearly 5 feet tall with a truly gigantic wingspan of 7.5 feet – nearly 1.5 times their height! There’s currently only one population that still exists in the wild, and it bounces between breeding grounds in northern Canada and wintering grounds on the Texas coast.
This species of bird prefers grassy plains interspersed with marshes and ponds. It’s highly opportunistic and will eat frogs, fish, mollusks, small mammals, and crustaceans. They make for great fliers, thanks to their large wings, but they don’t have the best eyesight. This leads them to accidentally collide with powerlines on their migration, which is the leading cause of death for adult Whooping Cranes. Nonetheless, there’s hope yet for this bird as they’re one of the easiest for biologists to incubate in captivity – they lay two eggs but will only raise one, leaving the second “backup” egg for scientists to remove and artificially hatch.
2. Great Egret
Scientific name: Ardea alba
Length: 2.6-3.4 feet
Wingspan: 4.3-5.6 feet
The Great Egret has breeding populations throughout the United States, but is most commonly seen around fresh and salt water marshes, marshy ponds, and tidal flats along the Atlantic coastline. They’re most well known for the beautiful feather plume they develop during the breeding season, and were almost hunted to extinction for them. Like most egrets, they also have gigantic wings that are nearly two times the size of its body.
Their most distinctive characteristic is that unlike most heron species, the Great Egret flies with its neck retracted. The Great Egret also has a direct flight, meaning it flies in a straight and level path while continuously flapping their powerful and large wings, which it’s entirely reliant on for flight. This-paired with its gigantic wingspan make it a distinctive silhouette in the sky that’s easy to identify for even first-time birdwatchers.
3. Great Blue Heron
Scientific name: Ardea herodias
Length: 3.2-4.5 feet
Wingspan: 5.5-6.6 feet
The Great Blue Heron isn’t really blue, but more of a blue-gray on their back and a black, gray, and white striped underside. They feed mostly on small fish in their aquatic habitat, but will happily eat a variety of foods. It relies on strong and powerful wing-beats to remain in flight and follows a very steady path in the sky which is certainly helped by their wingspan that’s nearly twice their length.
Great Blue Herons are the largest herons in North America, although they still don’t have the longest wingspan in North America, and tend to congregate at fish hatcheries. This can occasionally cause problems for the fish farmers, which has earned the Blue Heron a reputation of a pest, but this may not be the case. Recent studies have shown that the herons tend to eat sick fish that spend more time near the surface, which actually keeps the hatcheries cleaner and maintains a stronger ecosystem.
4. European White Stork
Scientific name: Ciconia ciconia
Length: 3.3-3.8 feet
Wingspan: 5 feet
White storks inhabit open wetlands, savannas, steppes, meadows, pastures, and agricultural fields throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. They like areas with shallow standing water and are well adapted to human presence in their habitat. They have gorgeous, large wings that allow them to easily migrate between their summer breeding grounds in Europe to their wintering grounds in Kenya and Uganda. Storks have evolved these wings in order to travel longer distances while using the minimum amount of energy getting there.
They eat a wide variety of prey that includes insects, scorpions, spiders, frogs, tadpoles, fish, lizards, snakes, crustaceans, small mammals, and eggs of ground-nesting birds. Foraging White Storks visually search for food while walking with their bill pointed at the ground. When they detect prey, they jab their bill forward to grab and swallow whatever it is.
Scientific name: Aramus guarauna
Length: 25-29 inches
Wingspan: 42 inches
The Limpkin is a large, unique marsh bird that has a slightly decurved beak and vaguely resembles an ibis. They mostly eat freshwater snails, mussels, frogs, crustaceans, and insects in peninsular Florida and southern Mexico. They’ve also been found in South America, primarily east of the Andes and nowhere beneath the Equator, preferring wooded and brushy freshwater swamps and marshes.
It’s named for its limping-like flight, with dangling legs and jerky wing beats. However, you shouldn’t judge a bird based on its liftoff, as it’s one of the strongest fliers of the area. It was once very common in Florida, but due to the decline of its primary food source, the Florida Apple Snail, it’s now listed as a species of special concern within the state. Collectively, a group of Limpkins is known as a “hobbling” of Limpkins.
6. Australian Pelican
Scientific name: Pelecanus conspicillatus
Length: 5.2-6.2 feet
Wingspan: 7-9 feet
The Australian Pelican has been recorded as having the longest bill of any living bird, but is also well known for its extreme wingspan made for the open ocean. It’s a unique color with a pink bill and white plumage and black-tipped wings. It mainly eats fish, but will also consume smaller birds and scavenge for scraps to supplement their diet.
They span large expanses of mainland Australia and Tasmania, usually over large areas of open water without dense aquatic vegetation. They’ve also been known to habituate flooded areas following heavy rain and any other area of water that can support a sufficient supply of food for them to scoop up with their bill.
7. Snowy Egret
Scientific name: Egretta thula
Length: 2 feet
Wingspan: 41 inches
The Snowy Egret breeds locally from Oregon to New England, primarily along coastlines, and winters regularly in California, Arizona, Virginia, and Mexico. They prefer to be in marshes, swamps, and mudflats in their search for crustaceans, insects, and fish. Snowy Egrets change appearance during the breeding season, with males gaining long lacy plumes down their neck and back as a mate attractor that they’re most well known for.
They were nearly hunted to extinction at the end of the 19th century, as these beautiful plumes were in great demand for decorations for women’s hats – in 1886, they were valued at twice the price of gold at the time. Now, they’ve adapted to human activity rather well and will choose urbanized nesting locations over isolated ones, as isolated locations tend to have more predators.
Scientific name: Jabiru mycteria
Length: 5 feet
Wingspan: 8 feet
The Jabiru is one of the largest flying birds in the world. Their sheer size would pose an issue if they were a purely direct flier, but the Jabiru alternates between strong, slow wing beats and short glides while soaring on thermals and updrafts to stay afloat. They’re common in regions of Brazil and Paraguay, but have been spotted in bordering countries as well.
Their name comes from the local Tupi-Guarani language, meaning “swollen neck” for their strange, swollen appearance. They’re incredibly ungainly when on land, but are graceful in the air and will fly with others of their species in large flocks. A grouping of Jabiru is called a “filth” of storks.
9. Southern Giant Petrel
Scientific name: Macronectes giganteus
Length: 34-39 inches
Wingspan: 6-8 feet
The Southern Giant Petrel is famous for its amazing flying strength and endurance, thanks to its gigantic and powerful wings. They have a distinctive salt gland that lies atop their thick hooked bill that acts as a way to excrete excess salt. They’re known as the vultures of the sea for their scavenging preferences.
When scavenging options are slim, they’ll use the hook on their beak to capture and eat squid, fish, young penguins, and other seabirds. They’re the largest petrel species and their heavy bills are “clacked” together to make noise for courtship displays.
10. Wood Stork
Scientific name: Mycteria americana
Length: 3.3 feet
Wingspan: 5-6 feet
The Wood Stork is local to Florida and Georgia, and will rarely be seen further than Texas. However, it is still considered a wandering bird, as opposed to a migratory bird, and has been found as far as California and Massachusetts. They primarily breed in the cypress swamps, although they’ve been transitioning to mangrove swamps due to increased human pressure on their habitats.
They’re incredibly strong fliers, being known to fly as high as 6000 feet. They’ll also fly as far away as 50 miles in search of food. They nest above water to prevent predators from getting to their eggs, with the most common perpetrator being raccoons.
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11. Goliath Heron
Scientific name: Ardea goliath
Length: 47-60 inches
Wingspan: 6.1-7.5 feet
The Goliath Heron is the largest living heron in the world. It’s highly aquatic and rarely ventures far from a water source – it prefers to fly along waterways rather than move over land, as water provides more updrafts for them to use when soaring. It’s typically found in shallow water hunting, but has been observed near deep water over dense vegetation as well.
They’re solitary foragers and are highly territorial towards other herons, to the point that they require an elaborate dance to recognize their mate lest they accidentally attack them in defense of their territory. Their prey consists almost entirely of relatively large fish, only catching around 2 or 3 a day. They also use their long and sharp bill to eat other small animals they may come across, including frogs, lizards, and snakes.
12. Gray Heron
Scientific name: Ardea cinerea jouyi
Length: 2.8-3.3 feet
Wingspan: 5.1-6.4 feet
The Gray Heron is, as you may have guessed, a large gray wading bird. It also has yellow legs and a yellow bill that turn reddish during the breeding season. Their habitat varies throughout North America, but they prefer shallow water of all kinds so they can utilize their stilt-like legs when hunting. They feed primarily on fish, but that also varies due to season and availability.
They’ve been known to frequently re-use their nest from the previous mating season, but are not monogamous. They find a new breeding partner every season, and will often either take over what was a previously shared nest or choose to move to a new site to avoid confrontation.
13. Sandhill Crane
Scientific name: Grus canadensis
Length: 42-46 inches
Wingspan: 5-5.8 feet
The Sandhill Crane is especially beautiful and renowned for the red patch on its head, as well as a white patch on each cheek. From far away, it’s commonly mistaken for the Great Blue Heron, but unlike this heron, the Sandhill Crane flies with their neck extended rather than folded in.
They have a low, rattling call that’s often compared to that of the American crow, and is the first clue to the presence of a flock of these birds. They’re opportunistic foragers who will eat more vegetation than most larger birds, but the animal portion is still incredibly important as it provides essential amino acids to their diet.
Scientific name: Balaeniceps rex
Length: 43-60 inches
Wingspan: 7.7 feet
The Shoebill is also known as the whalehead or whale-headed stork for its enormous, shoe-shaped bill. It has a somewhat stork-like form and has been previously classified as such, but they’re closer genetically to pelicans and other large, four-toed birds. They have gigantic wings that they use primarily to make themselves look even larger than they already do as a scare tactic, mostly against crocodiles.
The Shoebill lives in tropical east Africa in large swamps from South Sudan to Zambia. Their upper mandible is strongly keeled and ends in a sharp nail that can be used for self-defense. Overall, they’re noted for their slow movements and their tendency to stay still for long periods of time. They’re also known for their bill-clattering displays they do around their nest or when greeting another bird.
15. Bald Eagle
Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Length: 36 inches
Wingspan: 6.6-7.4 feet
The Bald Eagle is one of the most instantly recognizable birds, especially as the national symbol of the United States. It has a gigantic wingspan that can grow to over 7 feet, and is one of the few raptors that can go toe to toe with storks and pelicans in terms of wingspan.
They feed primarily on fish, but have been known to swoop down on any medium-sized mammals they can find. They’re also strong aerial maneuvers and can hunt larger water birds on top of their proclivity to find and eat carrion. They build truly gigantic nests in the tallest tree they can find – usually measuring 4-5 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet deep! This nest is for life, just like their mate.
16. Great Hornbill
Scientific name: Buceros bicornis
Length: 3.1-3.9 feet
Wingspan: 5-6 feet
The Great Hornbill is found in mainland Southeast Asia, the Malay Peninsula, and Indonesia, and are breeding residents throughout the Asian continent. They’re arboreal birds, preferring to live in wet, tall, evergreen forests filled with old-growth trees perfect for nesting. They have surprisingly large wings for this environment and are deft maneuverers between trees, vines, and other obstacles in the air.
They’re a very distinctive and vividly colored bird that has a special preen gland that secretes tinted oil that’s spread across the feathers by the bird during grooming. They also have a large casque, which is a hollow structure located on top of the bill used by males to fight with other males and attract females. It’s theorized that it’s also used to amplify their calls over miles, but requires further study.
17. Western Osprey
Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus
Length: 20-26 inches
Wingspan: 5-6 feet
The Western Osprey used to be classified as a part of the hawk family, but gained its own designation along with the Eastern Osprey in the past decade. It’s easy to see why, as physically they’re very similar, but have different diets and ranges.
They feed primarily on fish, and have a rather unique ability to dive underwater in search of their aquatic prey. This, coupled with their large talons, makes them especially adapted to this kind of hunting. However, Bald Eagles are notorious bullies of the Osprey, and will literally steal their lunch from out of their talons.
18. American White Pelican
Scientific name: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Length: 4.2-5.4 feet
Wingspan: 9 feet
The American White Pelican is one of the largest North American birds with a wingspan of nearly 9 feet. They soar with incredible steadiness on broad white and black wings. Their large pouched bills are used to scoop up fish as well as to regulate their body temperature and assist with swallowing. They’ve been known to cooperate with one another to herd fish into the shallows to make for easy feeding, even working with other species of pelicans and other waterbirds to ensure success. They can mostly be found on inland lakes in the summer and near the coastlines in the winter.
Contrary to common misconceptions, the American White Pelican never carries food inside of their bill pouch. It’s only used to scoop up the food, but their catch gets swallowed before takeoff. Despite their cooperation during gathering food, they’re also skillful food thieves and are successful at stealing from other pelicans about one-third of the time.
19. Golden Eagle
Scientific name: Aquila chrysaetos
Length: 2.2-3.3 feet
Wingspan: 5.9-7.5 feet
The Golden Eagle is a close cousin to the Bald Eagle, and both are found in the western half of North America. They’re revered throughout the world as a symbol of freedom and power, which is proven through them being the most common national animal in the world. They’re actually the national emblem of several countries, including Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
Unlike the Bald Eagle, they avoid eating fish and other birds, preferring instead medium-sized mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, and prairie dogs. This has the unforeseen added benefit of protecting them from many pesticides that otherwise plague birds of prey, especially those in highly polluted areas.
20. Dalmation Pelican
Scientific name: Pelecanus crispus
Length: 5-6 feet
Wingspan: 11.5 feet
The Dalmatian Pelican is the largest of the pelican species and is among the largest birds still alive today, as easily demonstrated by its nearly 12 foot wingspan. It’s also one of the heaviest of flying birds, which means it’s highly reliant on thermal drafts and soaring to stay aloft when flying. It features stunning silvery-white plumage during the breeding season that then fades to a less shiny white or gray the rest of the year.
They’re very social birds, preferring to live and travel in flocks. They may not be especially graceful on land, but they’re powerful swimmers and strong fliers as well. They spend the majority of their time using their beak, which like all pelicans is used to scoop up their food, to groom themselves while distributing waterproofing oil throughout their feathers.
21. Wandering Albatross
Scientific name: Diomedea exulans
Length: 3.6 – 4.4 ft
Wingspan: 9.5 – 12 ft.
With the longest wingspan of any living bird on the planet, we would be remiss to leave out the Wandering Albatross. The Wandering Albatross is one of 22 species of Albatrosses living today, with most of those species being either threatened or endangered. The Southern Royal Albatross has the next longest wingspan in the family of albatrosses.
Aside from its super-sized wingspan, the Wandering Albatross is also one of the most studied species of birds in the world. Additionally, they are one of the most far-ranging birds in the world having been known to fly upwards of 75,000 miles in a year. A Wandering Albatross will spend the first 5-10 years of it’s life (up to 42 years) flying over open ocean before it returns to land to breed, which it will do every 2 years for the rest of it’s life.
Wandering Albatrosses are found in Antarctic, subantarctic and subtropical waters unless it’s during breeding season when they are found on various subantarctic and Antarctic islands such as Iles Kerguelen, South Georgia and Macquarie Island.