Watching ducks and swans take off from the mostly unfrozen lakes the other day, I was impressed with how important those big, webbed feet are in keeping the birds’ bodies up near the surface of the water. For example, a light-bodied, male Hooded Merganser “ran” on the water less than 50 feet before it was air-borne.
These small diving ducks weigh only 1-2 lb, so getting air-borne from the water surface is less of an impressive achievement. However, Trumpeter Swans, the heaviest bird in North America, weigh 20-30 lb, and lifting those big bodies into the air requires the combined effort of both feet and wings.
And those are some really big feet aiding the launching effort. Swans rarely show off those big appendages that are so useful in water take-offs, as well as digging up the bottom sediment while they forage.
The birds with probably the longest required take-off pathway from water are the loons. With relatively short wings and legs placed far to the rear, loons need two to three times the distance for take-off that ducks do, and as they take-off, they too appear to be skipping along the water surface — or even hydroplaning.
The true masters of “running on water”, however, have to be the Western Grebes, whose courtship dance is a synchronized ballet of movement across the water, all performed without a single wingbeat, paddling with just their feet in completely upright posture. A clip from David Attenborough’s Life of Birds shows this incredible feat the best.