Aquatic Birds: Types & Examples

Instructor: Amanda Robb
Although we usually think of birds flying in the sky, some birds make a life in water. Today, we'll study examples of freshwater and saltwater birds and some of the extreme environments they call home.

What Are Aquatic Birds?

If you look out your window you can probably see, or at least hear, a few birds nearby. Most likely you'll see these birds nesting in trees, or flying to the ground to collect insects. Many birds that we see around our neighborhood make their homes in the treetops. However, some birds prefer a wetter habitat. Aquatic birds spend most of their time in water, either floating on the surface, diving to catch fish, swimming gracefully, or simply wading through the water. These birds have unique adaptations to help them survive in a variety of climates, from the frigid waters of Antarctica to the salty highlands of South America.

Freshwater Birds

Trumpeter Swan

Often times swans are associated with love. Pictures often appear with two swans leaning into each other, creating a heart shape with their necks. This stereotype is actually quite accurate, as swans form monogamous pairs, sometimes forming bonds that last a lifetime. Trumpeter swans are the largest type of swan with a wingspan reaching up to eight feet and a weight up to 35 pounds.

Trumpeter swans are known for their striking black and white color
trumpet swan

Aptly named, their calls sound long and loud, like a trumpet. These beautiful birds have white feathers with a striking black bill and black feet. They can be seen in freshwater lakes, rivers, and marshes in the northern parts of America and Canada. Although they were once in danger of extinction from poaching, trumpeter swan populations are now increasing.

Common Loon

Named for their awkward walk on land, the common loon is actually quite the graceful swimmer. With legs situated at the back of its body, it easily navigates the northern lakes of North America, Iceland, and Greenland. Diving up to 200 feet at a time, it scours lakes for fish and crustaceans. Their feet position allows them to compete with even the most skilled swimmers, using one foot as a break to quickly turn, pivoting 180 degrees in seconds. Although most birds have hollow bones designed for flight, the common loon has solid bones, helping it dive deep when it is on the hunt.

However, the common loon's locomotion isn't just limited to water. Even with solid bones, unusual for a bird, it can reach speeds of over 70 miles per hour in the air.

A common loon swimming in Wisconsin
common loon

Although adult loons aren't a common prey in their habitat, eggs and young loons can fall victim to a variety of species, including predatory birds like ravens and eagles, land animals like raccoons and weasels, and even large fish like pike. The common loon has quite a unique call as well: it could be described as a cross between a yodel and some type of loud wail.

Saltwater Birds

Emperor Penguin

Imagine the coldest winter you've experienced. If you live in a temperate climate, you might have felt below-zero temperatures. However, penguins like it colder than your freezer! Dwelling in Antarctica, emperor penguins thrive in temperatures frequently reaching -76 Fahrenheit, and that's without the wind chill!

An emperor penguin family in Antarctica
Emperor penguins

Raising children in such a harsh environment can be quite the challenge. In the winter, males spend most of their time on the ice keeping eggs warm, while the females go out to the cold ocean in search of meals for their family. This foraging can go as far as 50 miles and lasts for up to two months. Once the female returns, it is her turn on the ice as the eggs hatch and she regurgitates food to feed them. Then the males leave to go forage in the ocean. In the summer, the pack ice of winter starts to break apart and all penguins take to the sea, the first time chicks will learn to swim.

Weighing up to 88 pounds and growing to 45 inches tall, these large penguins have a streamlined shape that allows them to easily dive and navigate the cold water of Antartica, no flight required.


Not all salt water is found in the ocean. Extremely salty lakes and marshes can be quite caustic. Not many animals tolerate the high salt content of these regions, found in South America, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and parts of the Florida coast. However, flamingos love the salt and thrive here. Sometimes, the only other neighbors of the flamingo are the microscopic algae, diatoms, and crustaceans that make up their diet. The unique pigments in this food source are what give flamingos their characteristic color.

Flamingos in the salt marshes of Bolivia

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