Top 10 highest flying birds in the world

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key point:
  • The Griffon Vulture can fly up to 37,000 feet.
  • Most high-flying birds also have excellent eyesight.
  • Modern technology allows us to track details of how high birds fly and their migration patterns.

Over millions of years, birds have evolved forelimbs — wings — that allow them to take to the sky. These creatures can sleep, eat and mate in flight. But what amazes us most is their ability to soar into the clouds.

Migratory birds have the ability to reach incredible heights, easily joining the world's most powerful man-made air vehicles. These creatures have inspired the architects of air travel, as well as skydivers, ziplines and roller coasters.

Many high-flying birds are migratory animals, traveling long distances for seasonal or mating reasons. Migration of turtledoves, swallows and storks dates back 3,000 years and is documented in the writings of Aristotle, Homer and Job.

Today, modern science uses technology such as satellites and birdsong to track high-flying birds. When birds migrate, they seem to use celestial cues of day length, Earth's magnetic field, mental maps, and changes in the sun and stars.

But enough rhetoric is enough. Let's take a look at what this blog is about. We'd all like to be able to hop through the air like these 10 of the world's tallest birds.

#1 Ruppell's Griffon Condor — 37,000 feet

Highest Flying Bird - ruppells-griffon-vulture
Rüppell's Vulture (Gyps Rueppelli) sitting on a branch. The Griffin Vulture is the highest flying bird in the bird kingdom.

© Gabriela Beres/Shutterstock.com

At 37,000 feet, the Griffon Condor reaches the highest altitude in the bird kingdom. You'd think that thin air would cause problems. But Rupel vultures have a unique hemoglobin that creates an efficient oxygen intake system.

The Ruppell Griffon Vulture has a wingspan length of 7.54 to 8.2 feet. Generally, these birds weigh between 15 and 20 pounds. Scavengers have excellent eyesight and are able to see dead bodies from great heights. They can reach speeds of up to 22 miles per hour and can stay aloft for hours.

Griffons are members of the vulture family. Read more about bald eagles here.

#2 Crane — 33,000 feet

Highest Flying Bird - Common Crane
Common Crane, Grus grus, in Lake Hornborga, Sweden. The cranes fly high, even over the Himalayas.

© Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.com

Ordinary cranes can reach over 30,000 feet and fly over the Himalayas. Also known as the Eurasian Crane, this bird is found in northern parts of Asia and Europe. Considered a medium-sized bird, cranes have a wingspan of between six and eight feet.

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This crane is a long-distance migratory bird that spends the winter in North Africa. During the migration, common cranes often fly in V-shaped groups. They have distinctive calls and extremely long legs. One of the most distinctive features of this crane is the ruffled tail feathers on top of its head.

You can learn more about common cranes here.

#3 Bar-headed Goose – 29,000 feet

The highest flying bird - bar-headed goose
A pair of adorable bar-headed geese cast their reflections on the water. Bar-headed geese are native to Central Asia.

©Ian Duffield/Shutterstock.com

Bar-headed geese can climb to 29,000 feet, enough to fly over Mount Everest. Native to Central Asia, the bird is well suited to the high altitudes of the Himalayas, where air pressure decreases dynamically. These geese have greater lung capacity than other species in the family.

The body contains more blood cells. In flight, they increase cardiac output. They get their name from the black bars that surround their heads. They live in high-altitude lakes across Central Asia. In winter, the birds migrate south, covering distances of 1,000 miles in a day.

The bar-headed goose is unsurprisingly a cousin of the goose, which you can learn more about here.

#4 Whooper Swan – 27,000 feet

The highest flying bird - whooper swan
Adult whooper swans with black and yellow beaks swim in a lake in a city park.

©Rishad Allaberdiev/Shutterstock.com

The cry of this swan is that of a large bird. Great whooping swans prefer flooded grasslands, tundra, wetlands, ponds, and lakes. They inhabit southern Eurasia. You'll notice their yellow and black beaks and long necks. Whooper swans travel to countries such as Germany, England and Denmark during the colder months.

Like many migratory birds, whooper swans will move in a "V" of thousands of animals. Typically, they stay at an altitude of about 8,000 feet while migrating. But records show they have reached an altitude of 27,000 feet.

Learn more about the Swan family here.

#5 Alpine chough — 26,500 feet

The highest flying bird - the chough
Alpine chough in flight in the Bavarian Alps, Germany, Europe. The alpine chough is the tallest nesting bird in the world.

©Wolfgang Kruck/Shutterstock.com

Alpine choughs live in the high mountains of Central Asia and Southern Europe. These animals are also known as yellow-billed choughs because of their bright yellow beaks. With nests at 21,000 feet or more above sea level, the alpine chough is the tallest nesting bird in the world.

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Alpine choughs adapt easily to the thin atmosphere and have remarkable flying skills. They scale eerily around the highest peaks in the Himalayas. They can do so through the coldest winters and the bitterest winds. You'll find alpine choughs lurking around picnic areas and mountain restaurants, happy to let humans feed them.

The alpine chough is a member of the crow family.

#6 Bearded Vulture – 24,000 Feet

highest flying bird bearded vulture
An adult bearded vulture with full orange plumage hovers over dry grass in the Spanish Pyrenees.

© Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock.com

A large species of vulture, the bearded creature inhabits the mountains of southern Europe. These birds can reach a height of 4 feet and weigh between 11 and 15 pounds. Wingspans are eight to nine feet wide.

A bone eater, the bearded vulture feeds exclusively on the bones of found carcasses. They swallow small bones whole. The acid in their stomachs breaks down the bone fragments for easier digestion. Big bones are lifted into the air and dropped. The bird turned and gnawed at the debris.

Learn more about bald eagles here.

#7 Mallard — 21,000 feet

Tallest flying bird - mallard duck
Mallards can fly almost vertically if required. This includes taking off from the water almost straight up.

© Jeffry Weymier/Shutterstock.com

The mallard is a migratory wild duck found in Europe and North America. Mallard ducks are known for their stunning yellow beaks and iridescent green heads. Females may have black and orange spots on their beaks.

This species usually lives in groups and often mixes with other species of the Anatidae family. Mallards migrate south for milder temperatures before winter sets in. They usually stick to altitudes of 1,000 to 4,000 feet, but have been recorded flying at 21,000 feet.

Read more about mallards here.

#8 Bar-tailed Godwit — 20,000 feet

Tallest flying bird - Bar-tailed Godwit
A bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) pulls a worm from wet sand. The bar-tailed godwit has the longest uninterrupted migration in the world.

©Dave Montreuil/Shutterstock.com

The bar-tailed godwit breeds in places like Siberia and Alaska, winters in New Zealand and Australia, and is known for engaging in the longest non-stop migration in the world.

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Moving south from Alaska, the birds flew nearly 6,000 miles non-stop. These nomads are huge, with long mouths, and it usually takes seven or eight days to get from point A to point B, which is 6,000 miles away. Add that to the ability to fly up to 20,000 feet during migration, and you have one of the toughest, highest-flying birds around.

#9 White Stork – 16,000 feet

The highest flying bird - the white stork
Storks are heavy birds. They cannot fly very far by flapping their wings. Instead, they glide on warm currents called thermals.

©muratart/Shutterstock.com

The white stork is a wading bird. It is a popular creature with a neck as long as 45 inches. You'll find them throughout Central Western Asia and the warmer regions of Europe. The creature has a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet and bright white feathers.

White storks winter in Africa. They travel together in groups. The journey south (and back) can take nearly six weeks. The bird followed a heavy thermal system across Europe into the Strait of Gibraltar and the Sahara Desert.

You can read about a pair of white stork cousins here and here.

#10 Andean Condor – 15,000 feet

Tallest flying bird - Andean condor
The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is a South American bird of the New World condor family. Due to their weight and size, bald eagles prefer to fly in windy areas.

©Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock.com

Andean condors are birds of prey. These are birds of prey that feed on carrion or live prey. With their extraordinary eyesight, they can spot a meal from incredible distances. These animals use sharp beaks and strong claws to attack and gather meat.

This large creature inhabits the grassland and highland regions of South America. They weigh up to 33 pounds and span a 10-foot frame. They will rise to an altitude of 15,000 feet and glide with majesty. In many countries, the Andean condor is a symbol of freedom, power and health. It is the national bird of many parts of South America.

Here is a summary of the 10 highest flying birds:

rank bird height in feet
#1 Rupel's Griffon 37,000 feet
#2 crane 33,000 feet
#3 bar-headed goose 29,000 feet
#4 whooper swan 27,000 feet
#5 alpine chough 26,500 feet
#6 bearded vulture 24,000 feet
#7 mallard 21,000 feet
#8 Bar-tailed Godwit 20,000 feet
#9 White Stork 16,000 feet
#10 andean condor 15,000 feet
Here is a summary of the top 10 highest flying birds
Endangered New Zealand kiwi
Kiwis are an example of ratites, or flightless birds.

©Vee Snijders/Shutterstock.com

10 Highest Flying Birds vs. 10 Flightless Birds

The heights some birds can reach in the atmosphere are simply astounding. But there's also a whole host of birds that don't fly at all! Here's a comparison of the 10 birds that can fly the highest versus the 10 birds that can't take to the air to save lives.

rank highest flying bird flightless bird
1 Rupel's Griffin high side
2 crane kiwi fruit
3 bar-headed goose emu
4 whooper swan flightless cormorant
5 alpine chough cassowary
6 bearded vulture Vika
7 mallard steamed duck
8 Bar-tailed Godwit Emperor penguins
9 White Stork ostrich
10 andean condor kakapo

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about the author

Heather Hall


I'm a freelance writer with 22 years of experience. I live in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by nature. When I do my daily runs, I often see herds of elk, deer, and bald eagles. I have two dogs that take me on hikes in the mountains where we see coyotes, black bears, and wild turkeys.

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