Do birds fly for days while over the ocean? How do they sleep?



Do birds fly for days while over the ocean? How do they sleep?

In: Biology


It really depends on the particular bird species and their migration route. But many have the same ability dolphins do, to “partially” sleep allowing them to rest and continue navigating. If the migration route is not over the ocean for several day the species may flip its sleep cycle to take naps during the day.
TLDR: species specific
Edit: Additional info

Frigates stay aloft for like 60 days without landing. There’s other migratory birds that spent like 1 day out of 4 months on land, and the rest of the time they are aloft.


Swifts can stay in the air for [nearly a] year~~s~~ at a time. To sleep, they find updrafts and fly to great heights, then nap as they slowly fall back to earth.

Edited for accuracy.

Some birds have the ability to sleep uni-hemispherically. Meaning one half of their brain goes to sleep while the other half takes the wheel, and vice versa. This is how a lot of fish sleep too so they can keep swimming. In birds that don’t have that ability, I’m fairly sure I saw a David Attenborough documentary where some butterflies did an endurance flight across an ocean. Those who weren’t strong enough drowned, and those who were made it to land. I’m guessing this applies to the birds too?

Edit – for those asking for links etc, the book: Why We Sleep by Dr Matthew Walker is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever read, and my source. Thanks for all the upvotes guys.

Scientists have found that migrating birds can fly for 200 days straight, eating and sleeping while soaring through the sky.

The species the researchers studied is the Alpine swift, a swallow-like bird found in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Some of the swifts breed in Switzerland, then wing their way across the Sahara to Western Africa for the winters.

Based on radar data, scientists “have claimed that some swifts may stay on the wing for almost their whole lifetime except for breeding,” the study authors write in Nature Communications. But, they add, “no data are available at the individual level confirming such long-lasting flights so far.” Long flights aren’t unheard of among birds: Sea birds, for example, may fly for days at a time while searching for food.

To find out the swifts’ endurance limits, the team caught six Alpine swifts in Switzerland and tagged them with data loggers. The devices recorded information about light levels (which helped the researchers determine the birds’ locations) and acceleration (which provided information on activity levels). After the birds migrated to Africa and back, the researchers caught three of them and tried to reconstruct the birds’ flight patterns.

The team found that the birds tended to flap their wings more at dawn and dusk during the winters. But the most impressive finding was that the swifts appeared to fly nonstop when they weren’t breeding. According to the study, this is the first time that scientists have shown such sustained activity in a non-marine animal.

The swifts eat bugs in mid-air, so that explains why they don’t starve. But the results “raise the question of how or whether these birds sleep,” the authors write. The swifts’ activity appeared to rise and fall during flight, and the researchers speculate that the birds might still be able to control their flying while sleeping. The team concludes that “swifts do at least to some extent sleep while airborne.” — Roberta Kwok | 11 October 2013

I can actually answer this because of a podcast my 3yo son loves.

Two methods: Some birds will fly for weeks at a time non-stop, and they sleep in burst of only a couple seconds, and usually glide while doing so. They do this a few times a minute, so it builds up.

Others essentially sleep half their brain at a time, like some whales do. Like, they literally keep flying on autopilot while the left half or right half of the brain sleeps, then they switch sleeping to the other side.

Science-wise, we have NFI how animals do either of these things, but that’s because we have NFI about the sleep mechanism in general.

Edit: NFI = “No fucking idea”. I wrote this on my phone when I woke up at 2:30am, so got lazy towards the end. Apologies for any confusion. Where I live, I think it’s a normal acronym/phrase. My bad.

Edit 2: The podcast is “Imagine This” which is done by ABC Kids here in Australia. The ABC Kids Listen app has a few really good ones for young kids, from educational to fun to go-the-fuck-to-sleep. The ABC Kids Listen live streaming is geoblocked outside Australai, bit you can still download the app and listen to most podcasts anywhere in the world (according to their FAQ’s). Also they have transcripts of almost all their podcasts for the deaf and hard of hearing.

A bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) just flew for 11 days straight from Alaska to New Zealand, traversing a distance of 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometers) without stopping, breaking the longest nonstop flight among birds known to scientists,