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10 Incredible Birds That Dive for Fish (With Pictures and Facts)

Diving birds, with their astonishing ability to plunge into the depths in pursuit of their aquatic prey, represent one of nature’s most remarkable adaptations to the aquatic environment. Spanning from the icy waters of the Arctic to the tropical seas of the equator, these avian marvels have evolved a myriad of adaptations that enable them to thrive in their respective habitats.

This article delves into the fascinating world of diving birds, exploring the unique characteristics and behaviors of species ranging from the agile Kingfisher to the majestic Emperor Penguin. We will uncover the specialized adaptations that allow these birds to dive and hunt with such remarkable efficiency, showcasing the incredible diversity and ingenuity of life on our planet.

Join us as we embark on a journey through the lives of these extraordinary birds, whose existence challenges the boundaries between air and water, and reveals the interconnectedness of all ecosystems.

Birds That Dive for Fish

Common Loon

Common Loon
  • Scientific name: Gavia immer
  • Where found: North America and Greenland
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The Common Loon is renowned for its haunting calls and impressive diving capability, able to reach depths of up to 200 feet. These birds are most commonly found in the lakes and rivers of northern North America during the breeding season and along the coasts in winter. They are excellent swimmers, using their feet to propel themselves underwater in search of fish, their primary diet.

Loons have a distinctive black-and-white summer plumage and striking red eyes, which help them see underwater. They are solitary or found in small family groups, and their eerie calls are a defining sound of wilderness areas.

Did you know? The Common Loon’s bones are solid, rather than hollow, which helps them dive deeper by making it easier to sink.

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin
  • Scientific name: Fratercula arctica
  • Where found: North Atlantic
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Atlantic Puffins are small, colorful birds known for their ability to “fly” underwater. They breed in colonies on islands and coastal cliffs in the North Atlantic, spending the winter at sea. Puffins are distinguished by their brightly colored beaks during the breeding season and their exceptional diving skills, often catching several fish in one dive.

Puffins are social birds, nesting in burrows and often forming large breeding colonies. Their diet consists mainly of small fish, which they catch by diving from the surface and swimming using their wings.

Did you know? Puffins can carry multiple fish in their beaks at once, thanks to their unique hinge mechanism that allows the upper and lower bill to meet at different angles.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican
  • Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Where found: Coasts of the Americas, from Virginia to northern South America
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The Brown Pelican is famous for its spectacular plunge-diving behavior, dropping from heights of up to 60 feet to catch fish. They are found along the coast and on islands, where they breed in colonies. These large birds are a common sight along beaches and harbors, where they can often be seen gliding low over the waves.

Pelicans have a unique fishing technique; they spot fish from the air, dive into the water to catch them, and then drain the water from their pouch before swallowing their prey. They live in large groups and are often seen resting on docks or floating markers.

Did you know? The Brown Pelican is one of only two species of pelican that plunge-dive for their food, the other being the Peruvian Pelican.


  • Scientific name: Anhinga anhinga
  • Where found: Freshwater ponds and swamps across the Americas, from the southeastern United States down through Mexico, Central America, and into South America
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The Anhinga, often referred to as the “snakebird” for its long, slender neck that snakes out of the water when swimming, is a distinctive diving bird found in warmer freshwater bodies throughout the Americas. Unlike many waterfowl, Anhingas are not buoyant and can sink effortlessly to pursue fish, amphibians, and small aquatic creatures with remarkable agility. Their feathers, uniquely, are not waterproof, allowing them to dive deeper and swim with ease, but necessitating frequent sunning to dry off and maintain body temperature.

Adapted to a life of silent stalking and swift diving, Anhingas have sharp, pointed beaks perfect for spearing prey underwater. They are often seen perched with wings outstretched, a pose that aids in drying their feathers and is a hallmark of their silhouette against the backdrop of wetlands. These birds are solitary or found in small family groups, nesting in trees near water where they can easily access their aquatic hunting grounds. The Anhinga plays a critical role in controlling fish populations, showcasing a specialized niche within their ecosystem.

Did you know? Anhingas are sometimes called “water turkeys,” a nickname that derives from their turkey-like tail and their habit of strutting on land with an upright posture. This unique behavior, coupled with their distinctive appearance and swimming style, makes the Anhinga a fascinating subject of birdwatching and ecological study.


  • Scientific name: Family Phalacrocoracidae
  • Where found: Worldwide, on coasts and inland waterways
  • Conservation status: Varies by species

Cormorants are medium to large seabirds, known for their excellent diving skills. They can dive to impressive depths, with some species reported to dive as deep as 150 feet. Cormorants are found around the world, from coastal regions to inland lakes and rivers. They have dark plumage and a distinctive fishing technique, diving underwater to pursue their prey.

Cormorants often stand with their wings outstretched to dry after diving, as their feathers get wetter than those of other diving birds. This characteristic pose is a common sight along shorelines and on buoys or docks.

Did you know? Unlike most water birds, cormorants have less preen oil, which makes their feathers wetter for easier diving but requires them to dry their wings after diving.

Red-Throated Diver

Red-Throated Diver
  • Scientific name: Gavia stellata
  • Where found: Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The Red-throated Diver, also known as the Red-throated Loon, is a skilled diver, famous for its ability to dive deep into cold waters to catch fish. These birds breed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra, near large bodies of water, and winter along coastlines. They are the smallest and most widely distributed member of the loon family.

Red-throated Divers are distinguished by their red throat patch during the breeding season and are known for their agility both in the air and underwater. They feed primarily on fish, diving smoothly and silently beneath the surface to pursue their prey.

Did you know? The Red-throated Diver is more vocal on its breeding grounds than other divers, with a variety of calls used for communication between mates and signaling alarm.


  • Scientific name: Family Alcedinidae
  • Where found: Worldwide, especially in warm climates
  • Conservation status: Varies by species

Kingfishers are small to medium-sized birds, known for their vibrant plumage and exceptional fishing skills. They have a cosmopolitan distribution, found near lakes, rivers, and coasts. Kingfishers are characterized by their large heads, long, sharp bills, short legs, and stubby tails. They hunt by perching quietly over water before diving headfirst to catch fish with their bills.

Despite their small size, kingfishers are fierce predators. Their diet consists mainly of fish, although some species also eat crustaceans, insects, and small amphibians. Kingfishers have excellent vision, including the ability to correct for the refraction of water, allowing them to accurately target prey from above.

Did you know? Some kingfisher species, like the Pied Kingfisher, can hover above water before diving in to catch their prey, a skill not common among birds.

Common Murre

Common Murre
  • Scientific name: Uria aalge
  • Where found: North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The Common Murre is a member of the auk family, resembling a cross between a penguin and a loon. They are superb divers, using their wings to propel themselves underwater to depths over 100 feet in search of fish. Murres are colonial seabirds, nesting in large, dense colonies on steep cliffs.

Murres have a streamlined body and a pointed bill, adaptations that make them efficient hunters in their aquatic environment. They are social birds, often seen in large flocks on the water’s surface, and their diet mainly consists of small fish and invertebrates.

Did you know? Common Murres can spend continuous months at sea, and their young are capable of diving just two days after leaving the nest.

Gannets and Boobies

  • Scientific name: Family Sulidae
  • Where found: Oceans worldwide, primarily in tropical and subtropical regions
  • Conservation status: Varies by species

Gannets and Boobies are large seabirds known for their dramatic and precise plunge-diving technique. They breed on islands and coasts and spend much of their life at sea. These birds have long, slender wings and streamlined bodies, enabling them to dive from great heights at high speeds to catch fish and squid.

The Northern Gannet, the largest of the gannets, is particularly known for its spectacular dives, plunging into the sea from up to 40 meters (130 feet). Boobies and gannets are highly social and breed in large colonies, where their synchronized flying and diving can be a mesmerizing sight.

Did you know? Gannets have air sacs in their face and chest, which act like bubble wrap, cushioning the impact with the water when they dive.


Penguin diving
  • Scientific name: Order Sphenisciformes
  • Where found: Primarily Southern Hemisphere, especially Antarctica
  • Conservation status: Varies by species

Penguins are a group of flightless birds specially adapted to life in the water. Their wings have evolved into flippers, used for powerful propulsion underwater, where they spend the majority of their time hunting for fish, krill, and squid. Penguins are found mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with the greatest numbers in Antarctica.

Despite their inability to fly, penguins are exceptional swimmers, with some species capable of deep dives. The Emperor Penguin, the largest of the penguin species, can dive deeper than any other bird, reaching depths of over 500 meters. Penguins have a layer of insulating fat and dense feathers that keep them warm in cold waters.

Did you know? Penguins can control their blood flow to reduce heat loss, allowing them to thrive in freezing temperatures while maintaining a high level of activity in the cold waters of the Antarctic.

What Are Diving Birds’ Adaptations?

Diving birds have evolved a remarkable array of physical and behavioral adaptations that enable them to thrive in aquatic environments, hunting beneath the surface with incredible efficiency. These adaptations are a result of evolutionary pressures that have sculpted their bodies and behaviors to maximize their ability to find and capture prey underwater. Here are some key adaptations found in diving birds:

  • Streamlined Bodies: Many diving birds have sleek, streamlined bodies that reduce drag as they move through water. This body shape allows them to swim swiftly and with agility, enabling them to pursue and capture fast-moving aquatic prey.
  • Powerful Legs and Webbed Feet: The legs and feet of diving birds are often set back on their bodies, which aids in propulsion through water. Webbed feet, in particular, function like paddles, giving the birds the thrust needed to dive deep and maneuver with precision.
  • Specialized Wings: Depending on the species, the wings of diving birds are adapted for their specific type of diving. Penguins have wings that are more like flippers, ideal for powerful underwater strokes. Birds like the Common Murre use their wings in a flying motion under the water, allowing them to “fly” through the sea.
  • Dense Bones: Unlike many birds that have hollow bones to aid in flight, some diving birds have denser bones. This adaptation allows them to reduce their buoyancy, making it easier to stay submerged and dive deeper in pursuit of prey.
  • Air Sacs and Plunge Diving: Birds such as gannets and pelicans possess air sacs in their face and chest, which help absorb the impact of hitting the water at high speeds during plunge dives. This unique adaptation prevents injury and allows these birds to dive from great heights.
  • Oxygen Management: Diving birds have developed ways to conserve oxygen while underwater. They can slow their heart rate to reduce oxygen consumption, allowing them to stay submerged longer. Their muscles also have high levels of myoglobin, a protein that stores oxygen, which supports their extended diving ability.
  • Vision: Aquatic birds have excellent vision both above and below water. Their eyes can adjust to the different refractive properties of air and water, enabling them to see clearly and accurately judge distances when hunting fish.
  • Feathers and Insulation: Waterproof feathers are crucial for diving birds, helping to keep them dry and maintain body heat. Penguins, in particular, have a dense layer of feathers that traps air for insulation, alongside a thick layer of fat that further aids in temperature regulation.
  • Breathing Techniques: Diving birds have developed various breathing techniques to maximize their time underwater. Many will take a deep breath before diving and use the oxygen stored in their lungs efficiently. Some species also have the ability to close their nostrils while underwater to prevent water from entering.

These adaptations are the result of millions of years of evolution, allowing diving birds to exploit aquatic environments for food. The diversity in their adaptations highlights the varied strategies these birds use to meet the challenges of underwater hunting, from deep, prolonged dives to high-speed, surface-level pursuits.

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