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5 Birds with the Largest Wingspans in the World (With Pictures)

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great white pelicans

Even flightless birds have wings, though they’ve evolved for different purposes. Some birds’ wings are bigger than others; the size and shape of a bird’s wings are determined by where and how long they fly. Larger wings usually are for soaring, which is when a bird will keep its wings spread while gliding over the ocean, gaining height by flying over thermal updrafts as they move forward. Still, you may wonder what birds have the largest wingspans. Here are the top five!

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1. Wandering Albatross

Wandering albatross flying

Image Credit: MZPHOTO.CZ, Shutterstock

The Wandering Albatross has the world’s largest wingspan, with a minimum length of 99 inches (247.5 cm). The largest ever recorded wingspan belonged to a Wandering Albatross with a massive 12-foot wingspan. These enormous sea birds use their wings to glide around the Southern Ocean, landing only to eat and breed.

Their wings are so large that they can glide over 72 feet before losing three feet of altitude. Wings this large would usually take great exertion to flap. So, the Wandering Albatross instead soars over the ocean, catching thermal updrafts to stay in the air to conserve energy.

Though flight distances are hard to record, a Wandering Albatross tagged with a geolocator band was recorded flying 3,700 miles in just 12 days; many of these birds will circumnavigate the entire Southern Ocean, sometimes multiple times per year!


2. Great White Pelican

great white pelican in the water

Image Credit: Pixabay

The Great White Pelican is second only to the Wandering Albatross when it comes to wingspan. These giants have a smaller low-end than the Wandering Albatross at 89 inches but pack a higher high-end at 142 inches.

The Great White Pelican is a largely silent bird that sometimes can be heard making low-pitched grunting and growling noises. Though the birds make deep “moo” sounds in breeding calls, its flight call is a deep, quiet croak.

The Great White Pelican is found in Africa, specifically Ethiopia, Tanzania, Chad, Nigeria, and northern Cameroons. Breeding colonies have been observed in Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. Colonies and populations have been observed outside their primary habitat; the Great White Pelican is one of the most widely distributed species. However, though many areas retain large populations of birds, the Brown Pelican outranks it in overall abundance.


3. Southern Royal Albatross

The Southern Royal Albatross takes third place in the list with a lower-end wingspan much larger than the Wandering Albatross at 114 inches, but a much smaller upper-limit with just 129 inches to their names.

The Southern Royal Albatross was once considered one species along with the Northern Royal Albatross, previously known as the “Royal Albatross.” But many bodies, including Birdlife International and the American Ornithologists Union, have recognized that there needs to be some nominal distinguisher, as they are not similar enough to be one type of bird.


4. Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican

Image Credit: Piqsels

The Dalmatian Pelican has the fourth-largest wingspan in the world. It is larger on average than the Great White Pelican, though the Great White Pelican’s wings are longer.

Though they are similar in size and appearance, the Dalmatian Pelican has more significant differences between the two sexes than the Great White Pelican; female Great White Pelicans are often noticeably smaller than female Dalmatian Pelicans.

Like many pelicans, the Dalmatian Pelican is pretty quiet. However, they can be very loud during the mating season when they’ll be heard making various calls, including barking, hissing, and grunting.


5. Tristan Albatross

The mere existence of the Tristan Albatross is a disputed topic, but its massive wingspan isn’t the reason for that. The Tristan Albatross sports a wingspan up to 120 inches long, making it the fifth-longest in the world.

The tenuous existence of the Tristan Albatross comes from disagreement amongst experts about whether or not the Tristan Albatross is a distinct species. It only began to achieve wide recognition as a different species in 1998. While some bodies like BirdLife International have recognized it as a separate species, other experts like James Clements did not.

Despite the debate on its status as a distinct species, DNA analysis supported the split from the Wandering Albatross.

The Tristan Albatross was previously a species threatened by other species introduction to its habitat, namely rats, cats, and pigs. However, the removal of the invasive species triggered a new threat in the form of mice.

Though the chicks are much larger than mice, they do not know how to properly defend themselves, resulting in mice killing large swaths of Tristan Albatross chicks.

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Conclusion

There are few things as majestic as a bird with a massive wingspan, and these are the biggest ones out there. From the gigantic Wandering Albatross to the silent Great White Pelican, there’s no shortage of giant birds out there to learn about and see!

Looking for more big birds? Take a look at our articles on the California Condor and Andean Condor!


Featured Image Credit: Andrei Prodan, Pixabay

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.

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