Can Birds Swim? [As Facebook would Say: It’s Complicated]

can birds swim

Birds have evolved to accomplish some incredible things. If you take a moment to consider all the capabilities that avian species have developed over their history you will be astounded.

M​ost species of birds can fly with ease, with the fasted recorded flight being over 180 miles per hour, and some species can run at speeds of over 40 miles an hour. They can spot prey from absurdly far distances, they can build nests that can withstand extreme weather, they can say human words, and they can even sing and tap dance…

O​k, Warner Brothers’ movie Happy Feet may have made that last bit up, but the rest is true. Is there anything they can’t do?

Even though birds are predominantly animals of the land and sky, some species of birds have even evolved the ability to swim, and they’re pretty darn good at it.

Y​es, some birds can swim at varying degrees, but not all of them can. This article will separate species of birds into three distinct categories in terms of their aquatic abilities: swimmer, floater, and drowner.

I​f you’re thinking about taking your beloved family bird, affectionately named “Avocado” after your favorite kind of toast, to the beach this summer, and you’re wondering if Avocado can handle the waves, don’t worry, you’ve found the right article.


Birds that live in and around water have evolved certain physical traits that suit them to their environment. Some of these traits remain constant between swimmers and floaters, but some traits differ widely.

After all, swimming and floating are different ways to interact with water, so they require different physical characteristics to help get the job done. For the purpose of this article, swimmers are birds that primarily move through the water while completely submerged, and floaters are birds that move through the water while floating atop the water.

Arguably most well-known birds in the “swimmer” category are penguins.

most well-known birds in the swimmer category are penguins

T​here are many different species of Penguin, and almost all of their natural habitats are in the southern hemisphere. In fact, the Galapagos Penguin is the only species of penguin that has a natural habitat north of the equator.

Penguins’ features are excellent examples of the kinds of physical characteristics that birds in the swimmer category have evolved to thrive in their environment.

Penguins have essentially traded the ability to swim for the ability to fly. Their wings are dense and powerful flippers, which allows them to swim easily and quickly through the water, but it precludes them from being able to fly.

However, when a penguin is swimming underwater it looks remarkably like flying.

Penguins also have slick feathers that trap air, allowing them to quickly rise to the surface. They have webbed feet that allow them to naturally propel themselves through the water.

All of these characteristics combine to create the perfect avian swimmer. The Gentoo Penguin is the fastest underwater swimming bird and is able to swim over twenty miles per hour underwater and can dive to depths of over 600 feet!

Even Penguins’ coloring has adapted to perfectly suit their environment. Their white stomachs disguise them from predators below by mimicking the reflection of the sky, and their black backs disguise them from predators above by mimicking the dark depths.

But penguins are not the only species of birds that fall under the “swimmer” category, birds such as Auks, Cormorants, Diving Petrels, and Puffins also fall under this category.

Though these birds all have the ability to fly, unlike the penguin, they possess the ability to swim underwater. Some dive from the air, others float momentarily before diving, but all frequently find themselves fully submerged under the surface.


Birds that are “floaters” primarily interact with water by floating on top of it. Many will periodically dive below the surface for food, but never stay submerged for long, nor do they dive very deep.

Often, their dives are actually just inversions, where they never fully submerge, but instead, they simply flip upside down, with their heads underwater and their legs sticking up into the air like a six-year-old trying to impress their mom by doing an underwater handstand.

Birds that are floaters share some “swimmer” characteristics. Most have webbed feet that allow them to move through the water and feathers that trap air to keep them buoyant.

Ducks, who fall firmly in the “floater” category, have a gland called a “Preen Gland,” that secretes oil onto their feathers. This oil essentially waterproofs their feathers, allowing them to keep their light buoyancy while in contact with the water.

ducks are floaters

G​lands like this are common among aquatic birds, as aquatic birds always say “buoyancy is next to godliness…” O​r at least I would assume they would say something like that if they spoke English.

W​hen floaters want to submerge, they will press their wings against their body, to release the trapped air, and when they return to the surface they will shake like a wet dog to get the air trapped in their feathers once again.

Floaters also have hollow bones to keep them buoyant. This is one of the ways that floaters differ from swimmers, who do not have hollow bones, a feature that helps swimmers submerge more easily.

T​here is a wide variety of floaters, but the most common species of floaters include ducks, geese, swans, flamingos, and pelicans. Most of the birds you see at your local pond would fall under this category.

a wide variety of floaters

Unless you live in Antarctica or the Galapagos, then maybe the birds at your local pond would be swimmers.


Birds that fit in the “drowner” category are birds that are not suited to water and cannot swim. The category is named after the inevitable outcome of one of these birds falling into water.

It’s sad, I know, but that’s life, and you need to have all the information before you take Avocado on your beach trip.

Birds that cannot swim lack the physical characteristics required to live aquatic lives. They specifically lack two characteristics that are mentioned above as beneficial to the swimmers and floaters.

The first and least important of the two characteristics drowners lack is webbed feet. Without webbed feet, these birds are not able to navigate and propel themselves through the water.

T​hey are up a creek without a paddle… literally.

The second and more important of the two characteristics that drowners lack is the ability to waterproof their feathers.

Drowners do not need to interact with water to survive. Their diets have evolved to include food sources that exist on land, like nuts, worms, or small game.

Because of this, drowners never evolved the ability to deal with water, which is why you don’t see many birds flying when it is raining.

​Owls are good examples of this phenomenon. Owl’s feathers soak right through when wet, and keep them from being able to fly, and as a result, they have been known to drown in storms and flash floods.

owls are drowners

So if you’re planning on taking Avocado to the beach this summer, and you’re worried about whether he can handle the waves, consider his physical characteristics. Research the species of bird Avocado is, find out if he is a swimmer, floater, or drowner, and then do with that information what you will.

Because maybe Avocado is one of the many species of birds that can swim, and how fun would it be to go surfing with your bird?

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