Many birds can fly through the sky with ease, but did you know some bird species can also swim underwater? If you’ve ever wondered which birds share these dual talents of swimming and flying, you’ve come to the right place.

In short, some examples of birds that swim and fly include ducks, geese, swans, gulls, and more. Keep reading to learn all about these unique swimming and flying birds.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll dive into the various types of birds that swim and fly, look at their adaptations that allow them to move through both air and water, examine how they swim and fly, and more.

With over 10 subheadings and around 3000 words, you’ll become an expert on these amazing amphibious birds by the end.

Bird Species That Can Swim and Fly


Ducks are excellent swimmers and competent fliers. Most species take readily to the water and fly efficiently for migration or evading predators. Well-known duck species include mallards, wood ducks, teals, widgeons, pintails, shovelers, and mergansers.

Their webbed feet, streamlined bodies, and water-repellent feathers enable proficient swimming and diving.


Geese are verycapable both in swimming and flight. They spend lots of time on the water and fly great distances during seasonal migration. Canada, snow, Ross’s, white-fronted and brant geese migrate in distinctive V-shaped flocks between nesting and wintering grounds.

Their strong wings, waterproof plumage and webbed feet suit aqueous and aerial environments.


Majestic swans reside largely on water yet fly powerfully. Mute, trumpeter, whooper, black, and tundra swans inhabit wetlands across North America, Eurasia, and Australia. Their hefty bodies and 2+ meter wingspans generate the needed lift and propulsion to transport these aquatic birds through the air during migration.

Gulls and Terns

Gulls and terns represent extremely adaptable sea birds that swim, dive and soar with ease. They occur along seacoasts worldwide, where they feed on fish and other marine organisms. Key attributes enabling their amphibious lifestyle include water-resistant feathers, webbed feet, sharp vision, and aerodynamic profiles.

Audubon provides identification tips for discerning different gull and tern species.


The auk family encompasses strong swimmers and fliers of northern regions. Prominent members like puffins, guillemots, murres, and razorbills plunge into seas to catch fish yet escape underwater predators by flying.

Their compact shape, fortified bones, capable flippers and stubby wings suit this lifestyle. Sadly, oil spills and fishing nets endanger certain auk populations.


Loons perform as talented divers and migratory fliers. These striking waterbirds breed across Canada and the northern U.S. before heading south for winter. Morphological adaptations like dense bones, sharp bill and webbed feet aid fishing dives down to 60 meters!

Their pointed wings and streamlined profile assist energetically efficient flight over long distances.


Resembling loons, grebes constitute specialized water birds that fly competently. Noteworthy grebe varieties subsist on lakes across much of North America. Occurring singularly or in flocks, they dive to capture small fish and crustaceans.

Then during fall migration, they congregate in larger groups capable of vigorous long-distance flight southward to warmer waters for the winter months.


Cormorants excel as fish-catching swimmers and migratory fliers. These distinctive black waterbirds inhabit areas near rivers, lakes, coastlines and marshes. Keen eyesight and sharp bill enable them to adeptly snatch fish. Then they often perch with wings outstretched to dry their damp feathers in preparation for flying to nighttime communal roosts or seasonal migration destinations.


The anhinga represents a tropical waterbird that swims underwater and soars through the air. Sometimes called “snakebirds” for their serpentine neck and pointy bill, anhingas occur near southern U.S. wetlands and southward.

They spear fish with their beak, then often dry their feathers while spreading their wings. The anhinga flies gracefully long distances during seasonal migration and dispersal.


Pelicans constitute very large waterbirds capable of swimming and soaring flight. The most widespread is the brown pelican of coastal regions. Pelicans may float on the sea surface before plunging to catch fish in their elastic throat pouch.

After draining the water from their feathers, they can fly remarkable distances to forage over wide areas. Seeing pelicans glide just above the waves makes an impressive sight.

Unique Adaptations for Swimming and Flying

Webbed Feet

Birds that swim often have webbed feet to help propel them through the water. The webbing between their toes creates larger surface area to push against the water. This allows swimming birds like ducks, geese, pelicans, and swans to paddle efficiently.

The webbed design helps make them fast and agile swimmers.

Waterproof Feathers

Birds have feathers coated in natural oils that repel water. This waterproofing helps insulate them and keeps their feathers from getting waterlogged. Water rolls right off their backs thanks to this specialized plumage.

Ducks and other aquatic birds spread oil from a gland near their tails to coat their feathers and maintain water-resistance.

Streamlined Bodies

Swimming birds tend to have narrow, aerodynamic bodies that reduce drag in water. Their torpedo-like shape paired with their webbed feet makes them swift underwater. Penguins are a prime example, with their smooth, tapered flippers that propel them gracefully through the sea.

The sleek physique shared by diving birds cuts through waves efficiently.

Powerful Chest Muscles

A bird’s pectoral muscles power both flying and swimming. Aquatic birds have large pectoral muscles to paddle their wings underwater. For instance, cormorants have expansive chest muscles that enable them to propel through water and burst out in fast takeoffs.

The robust upper body strength of swimmers like loons and auks lets them dive deep and resurface repeatedly.

Flexible Necks

Birds that swim often have long, flexible necks which allow them to catch fish and see clearly underwater. Dabbling ducks can sweep their heads from side to side snatching food beneath the surface without having to fully submerge.

Swans arch their necks in an S-shape to plunge their heads into the water while keeping their bodies above the surface. The maneuverability of aquatic birds’ necks gives them fishing advantages.

Oil Glands

As mentioned above, birds have preen glands that secrete oil used to coat their feathers for water resistance. These glands are particularly large and productive in aquatic species. Birds spend time preening their plumage, spreading the excreted oils across each feather to maintain impermeability.

They replenish this waterproofing frequently, ensuring their feathers don’t get waterlogged during dives.

How These Birds Swim

Using Webbed Feet to Paddle

A key feature that enables swimming birds to efficiently propel themselves through water are their webbed feet. The webbing connecting their toes provides a larger surface area to paddle and push against the water as they kick (1).

This allows swimming birds like ducks, geese, swans, gulls, and loons to generate forward thrust and momentum as they paddle in the water using an alternating action much like a paddle boat. Their webbed feet allow them to smoothly skim across the surface of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters as they migrate across large distances.

Studies have found that the webbed feet of ducks can have contact surfaces measuring over 14 square inches (2). This provides substantial area for displacing water as they paddle, compared to birds without webbing.

The flexibility and mobility of their toes also aids their ability to steer and maneuver in the water using their feet. This allows swimming birds to not just move forwards, but twist, turn, and rapidly change directions when pursuing food or avoiding predators in aquatic environments.

Propulsion with Feet and Wings

While webbed feet provide the main source of propulsion, some swimming birds like ducks and geese also make use of their wings to aid their movement through water. Studies have found that wing movements can generate additional forward thrust up to 30% beyond what their feet produce (3).

This allows them to paddle across lakes and ponds at higher speeds during migration or when evading danger.

The wings are flapped in coordination with kicks from their webbed feet to maximize propulsive force. This coupled action of both their wings and feet lets birds like mallard ducks reach maximum swimming speeds over 6 miles per hour (4).

The ability to utilize both their wings and feet for propulsion gives these swimming birds an evolutionary advantage when traversing different environments during their seasonal migrations.

Diving Underwater

Certain swimming birds like loons and auks have evolved specialized body adaptations allowing them to dive and swim efficiently underwater to catch fish and crustaceans. Their dense bones act as ballast allowing them to smoothly submerge, while their streamlined bodies and spear-like beaks reduce drag and turbulence as they pursue prey below the surface.

Analysis of the wings of diving birds shows specialized contour feather asymmetry compared to surface swimming birds (5). This allows their wings to generate lift and thrust in both air and water, letting loons, grebes, and puffins ‘fly’ underwater.

Some species have even evolved the ability to continue propelling using just their feet while their wings are tucked tightly against their bodies as they dive down to depths over 180 feet (6). Their remarkable adaptations showcase the evolutionary interplay between anatomy and behavior in avian wildlife occupying aquatic environments.

How These Birds Take Flight

Running Takeoff

Birds that both swim and fly, such as ducks, geese, and swans, often use a running takeoff method to get airborne. They build up speed on the surface of the water by paddling aggressively with their feet. Once they’ve reached sufficient velocity, they spread their wings and take to the air.

The running takeoff allows these birds to generate enough lift and thrust to become airborne despite their heavy bodies and water-laden feathers.

This technique is especially common in birds that take off from water. By running across the surface, they can build up the 15-35 mph speed they need before lifting off. Their wings provide lift, while their feet provide initial thrust.

Ducks and geese often lean forward to get more speed from a running takeoff. They may need to run flapping their wings for 30-50 feet before taking off.

Taking Off from Water

When taking off directly from the water surface, swimming and flying birds rely on rapid wing flapping rather than their feet. They flap vigorously to propel themselves out of the water, generating both lift and thrust with their wings.

This allows for takeoff without needing to build up running speed first.

Species like loons and grebes that spend most of their time on the water are excellent at water takeoffs. They can spring directly into flight from a floating position. Their wings have adapted for underwater propulsion and aerial lift.

Swans, with their large wingspans and heavy bodies, also often take off directly from the water surface. They make a running start across the water, wings flapping, to achieve takeoff.

Bird Group Takeoff Method
Ducks and geese Prefer running takeoff
Loons and grebes Directly from water surface
Swans Combination – short running start plus wing flapping

Soaring and Gliding

Once airborne, many swimming/flying birds take advantage of air currents and thermals to conserve energy. They use soaring and gliding flight to cover long distances over water without flapping constantly. This saves vital muscle strength for taking off from and landing on the water.

Species like albatrosses and frigatebirds are masters at soaring. They have long, narrow wings adapted for catching air currents. Even ducks and geese rely on gliding and soaring to some degree during migration.

By riding air currents, migrating birds can travel hundreds of miles a day while minimizing wing flapping. This enables remarkable long-distance migrations across oceans and continents.

Habitats and Behaviors

Coastal Areas

Many birds that swim and fly, like seagulls, terns, and puffins, make their homes along coastal areas. The nutrient-rich waters provide ample food sources like small fish, crustaceans, and other marine life.

Rocky cliffs with crevices and caves offer safe nesting sites and protection from predators and harsh weather. According to the American Bird Conservancy, nearly 350 bird species rely on coastal habitats for nesting or feeding.

Lakes and Ponds

Inland bodies of fresh water like lakes and ponds also attract many species of swimming birds. From small ponds to massive bodies like the Great Lakes, these wetland habitats support diverse bird populations. Common visitors include ducks, swans, loons, grebes, herons, and egrets.

Wetlands supply essential food sources and suitable areas to construct nests floating on vegetation or along the woody shores. However, human activities have destroyed over 50% of original wetlands in North America, threatening many species of aquatic birds, according to the U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service.

Foraging for Food

Birds that swim and fly employ a variety of foraging techniques to catch their next meal. Many species like gulls dive headfirst to snatch prey near the water’s surface, while others like loons and grebes pursue fish and aquatic invertebrates underwater.

Wading birds like herons and egrets stalk patiently in shallow waters to spear fish with their sharp beaks. Diving capabilities vary widely amongst species: while Adélie penguins can reach depths over 175 meters (575 feet), horned grebes max out around 30 meters (100 feet).

Though their methods differ, from the open ocean to pondside, these aerial swimmers share an impressive ability to forage while swimming.


Since suitable habitats for feeding and nesting constantly change with seasons up north, many birds that swim and fly migrate long distances. As winter approaches, food sources dwindle along Alaskan and Canadian shorelines.

In response, tens of millions of aquatic birds like Brant geese head south towards more favorable climates and feeding grounds. After traversing thousands of miles, they arrive just in time to escape the bitter northern cold.

Arctic terns hold the migration distance record, regularly logging over 70,000 km (44,000 miles) round trip annually, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Their ability to cover such extreme distances is a true marvel of the natural world.


Birds that can fly and swim truly exhibit the best of both worlds. Their specialized adaptations allow them to thrive in diverse aquatic and aerial environments. We’re lucky to share our planet with such graceful swimmers and expert fliers.

Now that you know all about the incredible birds that swim and fly, you can show off your knowledge the next time you see a duck paddle across a pond or watch a tern dive for fish. Appreciate the elegance of their dual talents that evolution has shaped over millennia.

Keep an eye out for these amazing amphibious birds on your next trip to the beach or lake!

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