Six Avian Olympic Champions
These birds could give skiers and snowboarders a run for the gold.
If birds got a Winter Olympics of their own, the preparations would be pretty mellow. All competition would take place in the air. Birds wouldn’t require fake snow. Or 19 tons of salt. And they’d put on one heck of a show. Here are six birds that could sweep gold, silver, and bronze in a battle against Olympic athletes.
This year’s freestyle champion, Anton Kushnir, secured gold by pulling off the most difficult jump in the event’s history: a back double full-full-double full. Impressive. And yet Kushnir’s feat pales in comparison to an American woodcock’s mating flight. This dude does multiple 180s while dropping distances of 300 feet, the wind whistling through his wings as he dives. Talk about hamming it up for the ladies.
An Olympic ski jumper launches into the air and assumes an aerodynamic posture, hovering for a prolonged moment before making a soft, calculated landing. Barn owls—deadly predators that are able to pinpoint tiny rodents in a pitch-black landscape using stealth and precision—employ a similar trajectory on the hunt. Both the raptor and the jumper use very little movement and lots of lift; the owl relies on the curve of its wings, the human on the curve of the mountain. The owl’s wings have another spectacular ability: since they’re equipped with a rim of finely spun feathers, they’re able stifle out the sound of rushing air. The velvety surface absorbs sound waves and mitigates friction, resulting in a noiseless flight that most prey can’t detect.
Giant slalom competitors race down the mountain at speeds of 80 miles per hour, navigating the winding, quarter-mile-long vertical course. As fast as that is, it’s snail-paced compared to a peregrine falcon, which can dive at vertical speeds of 200 miles per hour. Falcons locate their prey from 3,000 feet away, then swoop in and deliver a lethal strike. Though smaller than many other raptors, with their speed they can generate enough power to take out heavy targets, such as cranes and petrels.
A snowboarder on the half-pipe generates dizzying parabolic patterns. Ospreys undertake similar feats in the air during mating season, performing solo dances to woo potential mates. They rise and fall in a choreographed sequence, with their tails spread out and their talons flexed around a piece of bait—usually a fish or some nest material. Ospreys and snowboarders draw upon equivalent forces while spinning and changing directions, which makes them masters of transitions. To the Olympians’ credit, they don’t get much of a stage to ride on—the half-pipe at Sochi is only 22-feet high and 100-feet long. For ospreys, the sky is the limit.
The Olympic biathlon combines two unlikely sports: cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. In the individual event, competitors cover nearly 10 miles, stopping four times to shoot at targets. The sport is like an abridged version of the Swainson’s hawk’s 12,000-mile round-trip migration from North America to South America and back. Along the way they have to hit their own targets, stopping in forested valleys and riversides to load up on squirrels, voles, pheasants, and even insects. In the biathlon, if competitors miss their mark the penalty is an extra loop. For migrating Swainson’s, the cost is greater; if they miss their meals it’s likely they won’t survive the trek to the tropics.
Cross-country skiers are the marathoners of the Winter Olympics, with men’s courses extending a whopping 31 miles, and women’s maxing out at 19 miles. During a mass start, 60 to 80 athletes will line up and take off together. Of course, their goal is to pull away from the pack. Bar-tailed godwits, on the other hand, are known to stick together in groups of 30 to 70 individuals on their impressive marathon trek: a 7,300-mile journey from Alaska to New Zealand. In undertaking this incredible feat, the birds lose nearly half of their body weight, and sometimes have to endure cyclones along the way. Before they depart they gorge on fatty snacks—shellfish, berries, worms. Their organs shrink to counteract any weight that’s gained during the last supper. When skiers hit the finish line, it’s not unusual to see them collapse, exhausted, onto the snow. In the godwit’s case, the competition doesn’t start until they reach the finish line, where they immediately begin packing on the reserves they’ll need for the return trip home.