My daughter recently had the experience of a large bird hitting her car windscreen, and smashing it, when she was doing about 70mph on a motorway. Fortunately the bird did not come through the screen, and there was no damage to life or limb (other than presumably to the poor bird).

As she was near Liverpool her first thought was that it had been a seagull, and later a pigeon. But the person who fitted a new windscreen said he thought it was a pheasant, as they are apparently notorious for this problem. The reason, he explained, is that pheasants have a shallow 'take-off' path. They run along the ground to get airborne.

But it made me wonder whether birds 'take-off'. Is there no other way of describing their going from rest into flight? Should it be 'take flight'?

  • I was about to flag this as genref, but found that Collins restricts the subject of the MWV to aircraft. AHDEL doesn't, Google shows that many people don't, and I don't. Apr 1, 2014 at 9:17
  • The OED had no flight reference for 'take-off' prior to aviation (first entry 1849). It does though have a recent reference to birds but notates it tranf.. That suggests to me that the term has been transferred from its aeronautic meaning. They must have said something before aeroplanes were invented!
    – WS2
    Apr 1, 2014 at 9:38
  • I just remembered my peacocks' take-offs. For such a big bird, it was astonishingly steep. Apr 1, 2014 at 10:39
  • Google Books has a number of hits for "birds taking off". The first three pages of search results feature only specialist books about birds. But then on the fourth page I found this: "In the United States each year, 98 million birds die by flying into windows" (which then goes on to use "taking off" in relation to a plane).
    – nxx
    Apr 1, 2014 at 23:45
  • OT but on a motorway I'd disagree with the fitter - pheasants avoid the noise more than some other birds (I've nearly hit them within a few hundred metres of the M5 many times on lanes, never even seen them from that stretch of motorway). The other options is some form of corvid - common around the motorway because of the roadkill and not very scared of cars. A pheasant in flight looks like a ball with a head and tail sticking out - a lot of tail if it's a male, which it normally is because the females hide.
    – Chris H
    Apr 2, 2014 at 12:52

5 Answers 5


Actually, take-off is the proper term for that stage of bird flight.

I remember reading about take off angles in wild turkeys and bred turkeys (to stock the forests), that wild turkeys had a steeper angle of incline than those that were raised in sanctuaries. From this, they could tell how much interbreeding was being done in the wild after release (the more wild genes, the steeper).

An article in the Journal of Experimental Biology (Effects of Body Size on Take-off Flight Performance in Phasianidae [Aves]) studied take off angles in Pheasants and other birds in that family.

They cite other studies of bird take offs from hummingbirds to swans...

...this trend will explain aspects of the ecology and evolution of flight. For example, within the Anseriformes, teal (Anas spp.) take off vertically while swans (Cygnus spp.) take off in a laboured manner, with a shallow initial angle of ascent. Since teal require less room than swans for take-off, teal may utilize smaller ponds with less open surface area...

before getting down to their own work:

To evaluate the mechanisms responsible for relationships between body mass and maximum take-off performance in birds, we studied four species in the Phasianidae: northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), chukar (Alectoris chukar), ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) and wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

One of their conclusions (a simple one comparatively):

Take-off power (Pta) scaled in proportion to m^0.75 and pectoralis mass-specific Pta declined with increasing body mass, roughly in direct proportion to wingbeat frequency.

From another study from the scientific literature (this one measuring seasonal differences and take-off angles):

In particular, the ability to initiate flight through jumping is critical to predator avoidance and may be influenced by changes in body mass (Mb). Here we investigate seasonal differences in the jump take-off performance of high Arctic Svalbard rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta hyperborea)...

Anyway, you get the picture. Apparently ornithologists refer to 'lift off' as take off (with or without the hyphen). It starts with the first downbeat of the wings once the feet are no longer in contact with any surface.

  • 2
    +1 But it is interesting that the OED does not have a pre-aviation term. After all, ornithologists have been around far longer than aeroplanes. I was fascinated that you had peacocks. I had always imagined that one only saw them in stately homes, like Chatsworth or Woburn Abbey. But perhaps you live in one!
    – WS2
    Apr 1, 2014 at 11:01
  • 1
    @WS2 I take it you don't read much Flannery O'Connor? Apr 1, 2014 at 17:03
  • @KyleStrand No I'm afraid I don't. Tell me more.
    – WS2
    Apr 1, 2014 at 18:44
  • 1
    @WS2 She lived on a farm with peacocks for a while and wrote about them in various short stories and an essay; they're one of her better-known recurring motifs. So if you'd like a good description of life on a poor farmstead (far removed from those fancy estates!) with peacocks, look no further. Apr 1, 2014 at 20:03

'Take flight' is the term you're looking for.

Although the wikipedia page for 'Bird flight' repeatedly uses 'Take off' or 'Taking off', so this seems to be a perfectly acceptable usage.

Here's an Ngram for 'Take Flight'

  • 2
    Ronan, please note that an Ngram for a single term says nothing at all about, well, anything except proof of existence of that term. Ngrams are for comparison, and even then, they have serious limitations. Also, if the wiki article uses take-off, why would you state that take flight is the proper term? Apr 1, 2014 at 11:17
  • 1
    If you extend the Ngram to 1700, you'll see that the phrase doesn't really, well, take flight until late in the 18th century - the time period when human flight began. What's the indication that it's being used in relation to bird flight?
    – user9383
    Apr 1, 2014 at 22:22
  • @JonofAllTrades - OP's question was about whether birds 'take-off'or other. I am questioning, well, the certainty with which Ronan states take flight is the answer to OP's question. Apr 2, 2014 at 2:05
  • 1
    @medica It seems the term "birds take flight" is actually starting to take flight itself and become more popular: books.google.com/ngrams/… Take flight has been used for birds long before planes existed, but take off is now starting to increase with reference to birds because of the aeronautic equivalent.
    – Ronan
    Apr 2, 2014 at 10:50
  • 2
    @Ronan, I prefer birds that take flight to birds that take off semantically. But the question is there a term for when birds start flying, the answer is yes, and it's take-off. Take-off is the noun, and the verb is take off. We usually strive for facts in our answers, and sources to back them up, rather than poetry. But your point is well made, and I concede that both are true. (And, your ngram now has more meaning.) Apr 2, 2014 at 16:43

The problem with "take flight" (while I agree it sounds more elegant or at least more suitable for birds) is that it doesn't have an accompanying noun.

Wikipedia suggests "take-off" and "taking off", and I can see the benefits of that. For instance, without a noun, you can't really use "shallow" (though I think I'd try for something like "low angle", which is a bit more user friendly because of "take flight at a low angle").


take wing

  • to begin to fly; take to the air.

Also, taking wing and taking to the wing.

  • 2
    'The bird is on the wing, I hear you sing; Oh, how absurd, when it's clear to all, the wing is on the bird'.
    – WS2
    Apr 1, 2014 at 22:53

It scorns the ground, to quote Shelley (not Winters).

  • It's logical. When you 'scorn' something you treat it as beneath you. But I cannot find any reference to such use in the OED, nor Oxford Dictionaries. Perhaps peculiar to Shelley. It does sound like something from the Romantic period.
    – WS2
    Apr 1, 2014 at 22:51
  • @WS2 It's poetry. Clever but not especially useful for everyday language. Apr 2, 2014 at 19:31

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