Birds pose a serious risk to flight safety worldwide. A Bird Avoidance Model (BAM) is being developed in the Netherlands to reduce the risk of bird–aircraft collisions. In order to develop a temporally and spatially dynamic model of bird densities, data are needed on the flight-altitude distribution of birds and how this is influenced by weather. This study focuses on the dynamics of flight altitudes of several species of birds during local flights over land in relation to meteorological conditions.

We measured flight altitudes of several species in the southeastern Netherlands using tracking radar during spring and summer 2000. Representatives of different flight strategy groups included four species: a soaring species (buzzard Buteo buteo), an obligatory aerial forager (swift Apus apus), a flapping and gliding species (blackheaded gull Larus ridibundus), and a flapping species (starling Sturnus vulgaris).

Maximum flight altitudes varied among species, during the day and among days. Weather significantly influenced the flight altitudes of all species studied. Factors such as temperature, relative humidity, atmospheric instability, cloud cover, and sea level pressure were related to flight altitudes. Different combinations of factors explained 40%–70% of the variance in maximum flight altitudes. Weather affected flight strategy groups differently. Compared to flapping species, buzzards and swifts showed stronger variations in maximum daily altitude and flew higher under conditions reflecting stronger thermal convection. The dynamic vertical distributions of birds are important for risk assessment and mitigation measures in flight safety as well as wind turbine studies.

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Computational Bio- and Physical Geography, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Sectie Natuurtechniek en Ecologisch Beheer, Royal Netherlands Air Force, Den Haag, Netherlands