Although there is plenty of fossil evidence of now-extinct flying bird species far larger than today’s birds, the largest flying birds alive today still reach some very impressive wingspans. These enormous flying birds are found across Eurasia, the Americas, and Africa, as well as a number of albatross species that spend almost all of their lives flying above the world’s oceans, very rarely touching land on remote oceanic islands.
What is a bird?
Modern-day birds are one of the six basic animal groups (alongside amphibians, fish, invertebrates, mammals, and reptiles), categorised as the biological class Aves.
Birds are defined by their feathers, toothless beaked jaws, and a strong but lightweight skeleton. They reproduce by laying hard-shelled eggs.
In other articles, we explore the largest birds, the smallest birds, the largest eagles, the largest birds of prey, and some impressive flightless birds. This article is dedicated to exploring the species of birds with the largest wingspans that are actually able to fly.
With this in mind, here are the 17 largest flying birds, listed in reverse order by size of wingspan:
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
Wingspan: 2.75 meters
Kori bustards are amongst the heaviest living flying animal, topping the scales at around 18 kilograms. By weight (up to 18 kg) and height (up to1.2 meters) the kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) is the largest flying bird in Africa, though has a smaller wingspan than the other African birds shown below.
Lappet-Faced Vulture (aka Nubian Vulture) (Torgos tracheliotos)
Wingspan: 2.8 meters
The Lappet-faced vulture comes close to the largest wing-span of all the birds of Africa, and also goes by the names Nubian vulture and African eared vulture. The species is easily recognizable due to its large size, bare pink head, and the lappets on each side of its neck – the fleshy folds of skin.
Built for scavenging, their powerful beak is able to tear the hides, tendons, and any other tissue from its prey, which may be too tough for other scavengers. As the largest vulture in Africa, the Lappet-faced vulture dominates other vultures during feeding, and is strong enough to drive off a jackal.
Bearded Vulture (aka Lammergeier or Lammergeyer) (Gypaetus barbatus)
Wingspan: 3 meters
The bearded vulture also goes by the name ‘lammergeyer’, and is one of the largest birds of prey in the world by both weight and wingspan. Found in pockets of southern Europe they live in mountainous areas only, usually above the tree line.
Bearded vultures are easy to spot with their black ‘sideburns’ and red rings around their eyes. Unlike many of the raptors on this list, the lammergeyer tends not to hunt live prey, preferring to scavenge on animal carcasses. Thye have a unique eating style whereby they carry a carcass high into the air and drop it onto rocks to shatter large bones before eating them.
California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)
Wingspan: 3 meters
The bald-headed California condor is only slightly small than the Andean condor and ties the American white pelican for the largest wingspan of any bird in North America. These condors don’t build nests but seek out ready nesting spots in cliff caves, rock crevices, or redwood hollows.
Their diet mainly consists of carrion along the lines of deer, cattle, sheep, and rabbits, and are tough birds, living around 50 years in the wild and able to go for a couple of weeks without eating.
Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps himalayensis)
Wingspan: 3.1 meters
Named after the mythical griffon with its lion’s body and eagle’s head and wings of an eagle, the Himalayan griffon vulture is technically a man-eater, playing its part in Tibetan sky burials by scavenging human remains left out on Celestial burial ground.
The huge raptors commonly live in loose colonies and travel and nest close to one another.
Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
Wingspan: 3.1 meters
The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is the largest waterfowl in the world. They look graceful and elegant, but have a dangerous side when defending their families or territories – standing up tall and hissing or assaulting intruders with their beaks and wings. Attacks on humans on water and land are relatively common, and given their size and weight can be very intimidating birds.
Eurasian Black Vulture (aka Cinereous Vulture) (Aegypius monachus)
Wingspan: 3.1 meters
The cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is the heaviest and largest bird of prey in the world, found in isolated pockets across Eurasia from Spain to Korea.
This Old World vulture has excellent eyesight, allowing it to spot carrion whilst in flight. Their looks are somewhere between an eagle and vulture, with the stern gaze and classic vultures’ featherless head to prevent a build-up of blood when it feeds, surrounded by a fluffy collar of feathers.
Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer)
Wingspan: 3.2 meters
Marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumenifer) are large wading birds found in Africa south of the Sahara – in both wet and arid habitats, often near human habitation, particularly landfill sites. Marabous are scavengers eating anything from termites, flamingos, and small birds and mammals to human refuse and dead elephants. They also feed on carcasses with other scavengers such as vultures and hyenas.
They’re an unusual looking bird, bald-headed with wisps of hair, perhaps worthy of their addition to the ugly five. They have a wingspan of up to 3.2 meters and a height of 1.5 meters. Interesting maribou stork fact: they have hollow leg and feet bones, an adaptation to help them fly.
Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
Wingspan: 3.3 meters
Endemic to South America and found in the Andes mountain range, the Andean condor has the largest wingspan of any raptor. It’s beaten to the world’s longest wingspan only by a small number of sea birds.
The winds and thermals in their mountain environment help them to keep their hefty weight aloft in the air, and they prefer to stick to flightpaths where they know they can flight paths that make use of mountain air currents.
Andean condor are primarily scavengers that feed on large carrion, but are known to supplement carrion with eggs or hatchlings from other bird species.
Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus)
Wingspan: 3.5 meters
The largest and heaviest flying bird in the world, this pelican can weigh 15 kilograms and stand at 1.75 meters high. The Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) is native to Eurasia, usually found in rivers, lakes, and estuaries in southeastern Europe, Russia, India, and China.
They are social birds, living and traveling mainly in flocks, and mating with one partner for life. They don’t look particularly graceful when on land, but they swim and fly strongly.
Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
Wingspan: 3.7 meters
This huge bird lives in shallow swamps across Africa, and is well worthy of its place on this list. It’s an unusual bird in that it is able to both swim and fly powerfully. It has short, strong legs, and feet with fully webbed toes to allow it to propel itself through the water when swimming, and to take off from the surface of the water as needed.
Wingspan: 3.7 meters
With a wingspan of up to 3.7 meters wide, the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) is the largest living bird on Earth by wingspan.
This enormous wingspan allows the albatross to glide for long distances without the need to flap their wings, which in turn helps define the wandering albatrosses’ lifestyle as birds that spend most of their lives in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Their smaller cousins the grey-headed albatross are one of the fastest birds on the planet.
Other notable albatros:
Southern Royal Albatross: 3.5m
Tristan Albatross 3.5m
Amsterdam Albatross 3.4 m
Antipodean Albatross 3.3m
Northern Royal Albatross 3.2 m
Have you had the luck to see any of these enormous birds in the wild? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!