Out of Bounds

When Wings Aren’t Enough

Flight is a great strategy for evading predators, though it isn’t always the perfect solution

By Rob Breeding

Wings are a remarkable adaptation. Our Earth-bound species has obsessed on the miracle of winged flight probably since the first proto-human glanced skyward and noted a red-billed hornbill awkwardly flapping overhead.

Hornbills — best known as advisers to feline kings — get along fine in the air, but proportionally short wings mean one will never be confused for a peregrine falcon.

Flight is also a great strategy for evading predators, though it isn’t always the perfect solution.

Take flying fish. They bend the rules, inhabiting the domains of both sea and air, domains humans inhabit only with the use of machines. 

As a youngster who’d recently grasped the concept of animal domains — some live in water, others the air, and then there are boring bipeds shuffling across the grassland — I was mesmerized by these fish that knew how to fly. I remember fuming when an elementary school teacher explained flying fish don’t really fly at all, they simply glide.

“If the Wright Brothers flew, then flying fish do too,” my adult self imagines the 5-year-old me responding with the kind of in-the-moment mental agility I hope to someday stumble upon, while I still have my wits about me.

Whether they fly or glide doesn’t alter the fact that these fish are amazing creatures with a remarkable adaptation to help evade predators, at least some of the time. And these symbols of good luck need a little themselves. 

Flying fish are the quail of the open ocean. Everything likes to eat them. 

Flying fish have several adaptations that help them get airborne. There are the wings, of course; pectoral fins nearly the length of its body provide much of the lift. Some flying fish also have large pelvic fin/wings. These four wingers are more advanced than primitive two wingers, which lack overgrown pelvic fins.

The body is torpedo shaped and sports a deeply forked tail, the lower lobe of which is longer than the top. The flying fish uses this lower tail fin for propulsion as it walks across the water in a zig-zag pattern, much like a Zara Spook topwater bait walking the dog to entice bass. The fish speeds to more than 30 mph before it takes flight, spoiling the dinner plans of pursuing game fish.

They can fly for more than 500 feet. And with a quick reentry and another fast walking-the-dog liftoff, they can more than double that distance. This is often enough to get them to safety.

Flying fish also have large, anime-like eyes, which give them great sight above water and provide sharp focus to infinity. Below water they are slightly farsighted.

Frigatebirds are also quite fond of flying fish the way hawks covet quail. They hover above as flying fish are pursued from below. The flying fish’s great above-water eyesight helps, but when gliding your evasive options are limited. Frigatebirds are game predators, though I’m not sure how good you have to be when a fish-out-of-water glides up to your level.

The everything that likes to eat flying fish includes humans. The Japanese turn flying fish filets into sashimi. In Barbados the fish is paired with a dense cornmeal porridge and okra to form the national dish. The light-colored flesh is reportedly mild in flavor. I’ve never tried it, but I have eaten flying fish roe in sushi and it is delicious; kind of like Pop Rocks candy, only salty instead of sweet, with a mild fish flavor.

It’s unlikely any flying fish will come up through the ice during the Northern Rockies’ hard water season, but there’s always time to dream and plan for summer adventures in the open ocean, casting to boiling gamefish while flying fish dog walk their escape.

I don’t feel so cold already.

Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.