Flight Signals

Blog Category
Discover Nature Notes
Published Display Date
Feb 01, 2023

Imagine a wetland teeming with flocks of birds taking off and landing. How do they navigate their crowded airspace?


Ducks, geese, and swans will signal to their family groups before takeoff. These include shaking their heads--up and down, side to side, or tipping straight up. The younger ones may get antsy for flight and begin signaling, occasionally jumping the gun. Usually, the leader of the group directs the flight direction and pattern.

Often, they’ll move to a starting line and liftoff one after another. This prevents the chaos from birds flying into each other from several directions.

Swans need about 100 feet for take-off, so they’ll head out to open water first. When coming in to land, these jumbo jet type birds need a runway as they ski across the water on their paddle-like feet. Often, ducks and geese will sprint out of their way or dive underwater for cover.

Geese may also make a low or background humming sound while head nodding and then a louder honking sound while taking off. Dabbling ducks shoot straight up out of the water like a rocket. Diving ducks need a runway. They taxi across the water while building up speed for liftoff. Conversely, dabbling ducks will plop back down in the water, while diving ducks glide to a stop.

Knowing these flight signals will help you be ready to snap that perfect liftoff picture. Watch the video below to see these flight signals in action.

Audio file
Hear how birds signal before taking flight
The Flight of the Trumpeter Swan


  • The trumpeter swan is an all-white swan with a wingspan of nearly 8 feet.
  • They fly with their extraordinarily long necks outstretched.
  • Individuals and family groups winter in Missouri, foraging in shallow water.
  • There are only about 5,000 trumpeter swans in the Midwest, and they are considered extirpated from our state.

Learn more about the trumpeter swan with the MDC’s Field Guide.

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