Feathered Freedivers: 8 Birds That Can Dive Underwater

When you think of birds you probably imagine them up in the sky. But many bird species around the world can be found diving underwater. We are going to look at eight freediving birds that dive underwater. We will explore why they dive, how deep they dive, and where in the world they are found.

1. Kingfisher

The colored feathers of a Kingfisher are easy to spot especially as you watch them deep dive into water. These birds are more than just a pretty coat of blue and orange feathers, in fact they are the largest birds that can hover. This is particularly useful for spotting prey before diving at high speeds of up to 25mph. Kingfishers have a small body and sword-like beaks that are perfect for catching small fish, shrimp or even tadpoles. Kingfishers dive near the surface of the water and do not go deeper than 25cm/10in, they can be found fishing all over the world with the highest numbers in tropical regions. There are over 100 different species of Kingfisher with most species living near lakes or rivers. Whilst Kingfishers are most revered for their diving skills, they are happy to take any food they can get so if a lang dwelling insect or even a snake comes along they will gladly take their chances. Also unique for a bird, Kingfishers do not build nests but instead can dig burrows for themselves in the ground. Despite their daredevil food choices and unconventional home location Kingfisher can live up to 10 years in the wild.

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2. Anhinga

A long necked freediver whose name translates to snakebird. The Anhinga is able to swim for up to 91m/300ft underwater. They search for fish amongst vegetation and spear them by rapidly thrusting at them with their bill. Anhingas swim slowly and only need a few seconds on the surface to catch their breath before descending on their next dive. Their long neck and wide tail are the Anhinga most distinguishable features, males have black feathers with silver or white detailing whereas females are a light brown color. These birds can be found in South and Central America.

3. Long-tailed duck

Easy to spot amongst a crowd of ducks due to its long-tail which it is named for, the long-tailed duck can be found on the Arctic coasts in the summer and migrating further south for the winter. Aside from their tails, long-tailed duck males are white in color with brown markings with females having more brown colors. They can measure up to 60cm with 20% of that length being their tail. Long-tailed ducks feed on a variation of shellfish including clam, crabs, and cockles. They will gladly feed near the surface picking at rocks but when needed Long-tailed ducks can dive down to 60m/200ft in search of food. Uniquely these sea ducks use their wings to propel them whilst underwater to cover more ground whilst foraging.

4. Pelagic cormorant

Pelagic Cormorants use their large, webbed feet to propel them through the water in search of food. They use their wings to help them steer through the water and have long necks which can reach between rocks and crevices to find a diet of crustaceans, fish and invertebrates such as marine worms on the seabed. Pelagic Cormorants are able to hold their breath for 2 minutes giving them plenty of time to search up to 40m/138 ft deep for food. These birds have sleek black feathers with a purple or green gloss. They can be found along the coast of the Pacific from the Arctic down to Mexico.

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5. Brown pelican

The Brown Pelican can be found in the US and central America. They live on the southern coast near lagoons and beaches. These birds dive into the water at breakneck speed but are able to endure this impact with skill and adapted physicality. In order to avoid injury whilst diving at up to 40mph Brown Pelican’s protect their breathing organs by tucking in their head and rotating their body to shield from impact. They also have air sacs on their breast which act as a cushion when entering the water. They spot prey from above and dive at great speeds to stun the fish, then using their large bill the bird scoops up its disorientated dinner. The Brown Pelican has a large dark body with a white neck and yellow head. These birds eat fish including herring, pigfish, and silversides, they will also enjoy crustaceans and have no problem stealing eggs from the nest of other birds. The oldest record Brown Pelican was 43 years old.

6. Emperor penguin

One of the most impressive free divers on our list all whilst looking sharp in their tuxedo-esque coat. The emperor penguin can be found in chilly Antarctica living in colonies of thousands for warmth. Its thick coat is also fantastic insulation for when the emperor penguin goes diving for food. Not only are emperor penguins the largest diving bird on our list weighing up to 45kg/100lb but they are the deepest diving birds. Emperor penguins can dive below 1,850 feet with an average speed of 15kph. Most fascinating is that their bodies are engineered to survive the intense conditions of the deep water; they are able to withstand high water pressures at depth due to their thick solid bones. Emperor penguins spend on average 20 minutes underwater searching for krill, fish, and squid to eat. 28 minutes is the longest time an Emperor penguin has dived for.

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7. Great Crested Grebe

The Great Crested Grebe is known to prefer swimming to flying so it is no surprise they are excellent divers. Highest concentrations of this species can be found in Europe, but this bird can be spotted in calm water all over the globe including New Zealand and Africa. One of the most notable features of the Great Crested Grebe is its colorful head with white cheeks, maroon feathers, and a black plume on top of its head. These birds opt to dive for short periods, just under a minute while stalking their prey. They are happy to spend their life in water especially since the placement of their large feet make walking on land difficult, fortunately it is these large webbed feet which allow them to effortlessly swim underwater snacking on small fish. In addition to swimming well underwater, Great crested Grebe do an excellent job of dancing on top of the water as part of courtship rituals with their mate.

8. Osprey

The glorious Osprey has an average wingspan of 1.5m which allows them to take flight from the water after a dive. Diving from up to 40m above Osprey are known for their impeccable accuracy of catching fish from the skies up to a depth of 1m in the water. When diving, Ospreys are able to close a special semi-transparent eyelid which acts as natural goggles to help them see their prey. Unlike many other birds on our list Ospreys exclusively eat fish so building up excellent diving skills is essential to their survival. Ospreys can be spotted by their white and brown coloring, with brown feathers on their wings, back and around their eyes and a white coloring on their main body. Ospreys can be found all over the world in habitats on estuaries or large bodies of water.

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Do you know any other feathered freedivers?