Have you got a chance to see a diving bird plunging into the water and resurfacing with a fish in their beaks? Such a fantastic piece of natural talent.
Water diving birds include cormorants, grebes, penguins, puffins, and gannets, among others. There are three different diving techniques; foot-propelled diving, wing-propelled diving, and plunge-diving. However, regardless of the diving methods, diving birds plunge into the water either from flights or the water’s surface.
This article will talk more about the techniques and strategies these impressive diving birds use to catch their favorite meal.
Let us get right in!
Foot-propelled Diving Birds
We associate most birds with their flying abilities, yet a few species are superb swimmers.
Foot-propelled diving birds have physiological and anatomical characteristics suited to their aquatic diving environment. These birds keep their wings tightly folded against their sides as they dive in and rely on their feet to propel them through the water.
All foot-propelled swimming birds have specialized hindlimb features to contend with forces underwater to ensure swimming and diving efficacy.
Scientific Name: Phalacrocoracidae
There are four species of cormorants, three of which are found along South Africa’s coastline. The cold Benguela current provides these marine birds with plenty of food.
Cormorants are pursuit hunters, diving into the water and using their webbed feet to propel themselves underwater.
They can dive to depths of up to 60 feet below the surface and can stay underwater for up to 70 seconds.
These foot-propelled diving birds love to eat small invertebrates and fish. In case they fail to catch anything, they run along the water’s surface to take off again.
Interestingly, their feathers aren’t waterproof, so the extra weight of the water in their plumage helps them dive deeper.
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Scientific Name: Gavia
Most birds that live in the freshwater swim by propelling themselves with their strong feet. Loons are a perfect example of this.
Being slender and streamlined, with two powerful legs and webbed feet, loons are skilled divers.
Like penguins, loons can dive extremely deep, having been recorded at depths of 250 feet.
Like most foot-propelled birds, loons hold their wings tightly while diving and swimming.
Loons are carnivores birds, and their favorite food includes fish. However, they will also hunt for shrimps, crayfish, frogs, and aquatic creatures.
Scientific Name: Aythya ferina
Freshwater diving ducks or pochards have brown and gray plumage, with the males having some other bright iridescent reds and oranges as well. These interestingly looking birds are found in Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
All pochards dive as the primary method of hunting, using just their feet to move underwater. Most species dive in depths of 2 to 10 feet deep.
Interestingly, these medium-sized diving ducks are nocturnal feeders, diving for their food in almost complete darkness.
Pochards are omnivorous birds, and they mainly feed on various aquatic plants; however, they’ll also supplement their diet with small fish, mollusks, and insects.
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Scientific Name: Podicipedidae
These aquatic foot-propelled, surface diving birds also have relatives in marine habitats during winter. They resemble loons but are more closely related to flamingos.
Grebes are long-neck aquatic diving birds with lobed toes and superb swimming abilities. In addition to broad lobes, their strong feet help the birds propel in water with magnificent efficiency.
When diving, grebes spread out their feet, bringing them inward with the webbing expanded to give them that forward thrust, and they usually dive between 10 and 20 feet deep.
Furthermore, grebes have dense, waterproof plumage that they press against their body, adjusting the buoyancy.
The bulk of their diet consists of crabs, salamanders, mollusks, worms, and other aquatic insects.
Wing-propelled Diving Birds
As their name suggests, wing-propelled diving birds make use of their wings to propel themselves through the water swiftly. These birds mostly have shorter wings than other birds, as they mainly adapted to swimming and diving in water rather than flying.
The wing-propelled technique is the fastest method, and some of these birds are quite accomplished divers, being able to reach depths over 320 feet underwater.
This effective diving and swimming style has evolved for many birds. However, the perfect example is a super quick penguin.
Scientific Name: Spheniscidae
There are about 18 types of penguins, and they are all non-flying birds. So what do they use their tiny wings for then? To swim and to dive.
Penguins swim immensely swiftly through the water, darting, twisting, and turning at incredible speeds. These wings help them dive and swim, moving like flippers that propel them as they swim.
Emperor penguins, in particular, can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes and reach the depths of 1,500 feet below the surface!
They have strong breast muscles that are used for wing movements. Their short oily feathers trap a layer of warm air in the body, and this trapped air keeps the penguin afloat in the water.
All penguin species are carnivores; while most of them primarily feed on fish, others complement their diet with krill and squid.
Scientific Name: Pelecanoides
Small-sized, stocky, short-winged diving petrels like to fly low and fast over the water. They will even pass through the crests of waves than go over them.
Found in the southern hemisphere, diving petrels are plankton feeders, loving to feed on crustaceans, krill, small fish, and squid.
Diving petrels’ deepest dive recorded was 272 feet, while their average dives are around 100 feet.
Diving petrels are the only members of tubenoses (order of seabirds) that use their wings for propulsion underwater.
Scientific Name: Procellariidae
Sooty Shearwaters are seen more over the Pacific than the Atlantic with huge flocks. They’re excellent flyers making use of ocean winds to travel far.
In addition to their extraordinary flying skills, the birds are excellent divers. They can dive deep and then pursue fish underwater, using their wings to propel themselves.
Shearwaters dive as deep as 230 feet, and they often glide for more than 1 mile, skimming the water’s surface.
They chase their prey below the water, using their powerful wings to propel them underwater. Shearwaters mainly feed on fish and squid, and other oceanic food.
Scientific Name: Fratercula
Puffins belong to the Auk family of seabirds. There are four species of puffins, with the Atlantic puffin being the smallest of the puffins and the tufted puffin being the largest.
Known as the ‘clowns of the ocean’ and ‘sea parrot,’ these tiny birds are unique-looking species.
Puffins are expert divers, and when hunting, they usually do not dive below 100 feet. However, some reports suggest that puffins are able to reach depths of 250 feet under the surface.
These wing-propelled diving birds use their wings to propel them through the water, and many suggest that they appear ‘flying’ underwater. Puffins make use of their diving and swimming capacities to capture their favorite meal – fish.
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Plunge Diving Birds
Plunge-diving birds are the most eye-pleasing diving techniques as these birds perform tremendous acrobatic skills. When they are at a reasonable height above the water, they perform a high-speed dive through the air and plunge into the water headfirst to catch prey.
Plunge-diving is an exceptional hunting tactic used by birds to surprise their prey.
Examples of plunge-diving water birds include gannets, boobies, terns, and kingfishers. When these birds ‘missile’ themselves underwater, they catch the prey by grabbing it with their beaks.
If they fail, they’ll use their webbed feet to propel themselves back to the surface to perform the plunge dive over again.
Scientific Name: Morus
The gannet is a large bird for such a spectacular plunge, plummeting from about 100 to 130 feet into the water. They can hit the water at about 55 miles an hour!
Hitting the water at that high speed can mean their nostrils are filled with water. Therefore, gannets breathe through thin slits covered by a flap of tissue that closes with the dive.
Gannets will sometimes use their wings or feet for underwater propulsion.
Birds like this that plunge-dive to strike at fish perform visual detection and location of submerged prey. You can imagine how brilliant it is to get it right as they have to contend with difficult optical conditions and reflections.
Scientific Name: Sula
Boobies are seabirds that can be found on the coasts of South and Central America. Like gannets, boobies are plunge divers, circling overhead till they see their prey.
Boobies fold their wings in and dive headfirst into the water, hurtling towards the water from 300 feet.
According to animal experts, boobies dive into the water at speeds between 20 and 45 mph. They usually dive as deep as 82 feet.
The larger and heavier females can typically dive deeper than the males.
The main targets of these diving seabirds are fish and squids.
Scientific Name: Sternidae
Terns, like other lunge diving birds, have unique characteristics to allow them to plunge dive and not get themselves killed in the effort. They have greater blood volume and store more oxygen than non-diving birds. (source)
The tern, of which there are about 40 species, is a slender bird that is found all over the world.
Terns usually plunge from about 15 feet into the water, and they usually dive no more than 20 inches deep.
The diet of the bird is essentially based on crustaceans and small fish.
Scientific Name: Alcedinidae
Kingfishers have a lot going for them. They are brilliantly colored, but they’re also adaptable to different environments. The common kingfisher likes to be found around lakes and rivers and sometimes, in winter, will even move to the coast.
When hunting for fish, the kingfisher will perch on the branch, waiting for the opportunity to dive bomb their game.
These small birds usually plunge no deep than 10 inches underwater.
Like other diving birds, kingfishers have an intuitive understanding of how water reflects light, which helps them catch their prey when attacking at full speed.
Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
The osprey is the only bird of prey that dives into the water wholly submerged and yet manages to fly away with its catch.
Unlike other plunge-diving birds, ospreys dive feet-first, using curved claws to capture fish.
Ospreys dive to the water’s surface from up to 100 feet high. They typically dive between speeds of 30 and 50 mph.
These raptor birds are exceptional fishers, and according to studies, their success rate is as high as 70 percent.
In Summary on Water Diving Birds
Most of us have observed sea birds diving and crashing on the surface and the frenzy above water as the birds feed on fish. Based on the species of birds and their geographic zone, you get to know what food they’re looking for.
All bird species have developed different types of feet, legs, beaks, wings, and plumage to help them survive in the environment they live in.
Diving birds also have various adaptations for catching prey, including webbed feet, long beaks, powerful wings, upward-pointing nostrils, and other highly developed senses and skills that allow them to be masters at diving and feeding.
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