By Dan Temple

2019-04-15 10:07:09 8 Comments

Is there a single word to describe birds that can fly? Am I struggling to think of a word because the default notion of a bird is that it can fly? So we generally only need to differentiate the ones that can't fly.

I've seen the term "winged" in a few google searches, but to my mind an ostrich is winged, but it is also flightless.

I guess I'm looking for the word you'd put into this blank:

Penguins are flightless because they cannot fly.

Ostriches are flightless because they cannot fly.

Pigeons are ____ because they can fly.


@Harper 2019-04-17 00:26:28

Simply, "Flying" is a very strong word that says what you want. It's not obvious, because your quest for a plug-in unit replacement for flightless it has thrown you off-course. "Flying" is so strong it requires adapting the sentence.

Pigeons are flying [birds]

fullstop. You might fill in the implied noun. The "plug-in" idea doesn't work: you wouldn't say

Pigeons are flying because they can fly

since there's an obvious redundancy, which you would eliminate or restyle.

@Aled Cymro 2019-04-16 20:55:51

The dodo was a kind of pigeon but lacking the need to escape predators was flightless. Pigeons in countries where predation is a danger are flying birds. So my suggestion is "flying". That is the best I can do. We can talk about the walking wounded or about talking stones and have those adjectives understood. To talk about a flying bird sounds strange but words become acceptable through use.

@CJ Dennis 2019-04-16 23:52:57

"flying" has already been suggested and is a highly up-voted answer. This answer adds nothing new.

@Tarun 2019-04-15 13:52:56

You could say, "Pigeons are flighted" as other users mentioned, or "Pigeons possess the ability of flight". It is not one word, but I guess it's very clear.

@Aethenosity 2019-04-15 18:46:01

Penguins CAN'T fly though. Did you mean pigeons (as that was the blank example in the OP)?

@alephzero 2019-04-15 20:47:23

Penguins can fly very well, (i.e. they use their wings to propel themselves) but they only do it under water.

@jimm101 2019-04-15 20:52:23

@alephzero That's not swimming?

@Aethenosity 2019-04-15 20:59:00

@alephzero while there is one definition that would fit that, contextually we are obviously using this definition: move through the air using wings. But my comment was more curious about why he singled out penguins over the blank sentence which used pigeons. I think it was a mistake, but maybe not.

@Tarun 2019-04-16 14:42:47

Yeah that was a mistake but they do propel themselves through water which is a fluid so is it flight??

@Andrew Beals 2019-04-15 18:09:38

"Volant" would be another choice here, but it's likely to send the reader to a dictionary.

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 11:45:06


This is the straightforward opposite of flightless.

Edit - reference below:

@WendyG Chambers's English Dictionary, Enlarged Edition with supplement containing 39 pages of additional words and phrases, W&R Chambers Limited, Edinburgh 1914:

"Flight, n. a passing through the air: a soaring: excursion : a sally : a series of steps : a flock of birds flying together : the birds produced in the same season : a volley or shower : act of fleeing : hasty removal.
- adjs. Flight'ed (Milton), flying ; Flight'y, fanciful : changeable : giddy.

- adv. Flight'ily.
-n. Flight'iness. [A.S. flyht - fléogan.] (p 350).

@WendyG 2019-04-15 12:35:31

yep flightless/ flighted. But interestingly I can't find this in "proper" dictionaries.

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 12:42:46

@WendyG reference added to answer.

@Glorfindel 2019-04-15 18:46:18

I'm not saying that this answer is wrong, but which part of the reference supports the claim that 'flighted' (incidentally, my spelling checker complains about it!) is the opposite of flightless?

@James Random 2019-04-15 20:57:48

If you read pretty much any article on flightless birds you will find several uses of "flighted" to describe the "other" birds.

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 21:13:36

@Glorfindel in short, both are correct but the meaning of "flying" requires context or clarification; "flighted" is unambiguously opposite to "flightless".

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 21:45:22

@Aethenosity agree to disagree. Let me pop our words back into the last line of the question: "pigeons are flying because they can fly", cf. "pigeons are flighted because they can fly".

@HotelCalifornia 2019-04-16 07:14:33

I'm not sure how acceptable this is as evidence, but it may be worth considering and comparing to the pair sightless_/_sighted

@Magoo 2019-04-16 12:51:53

I anticipated this would be flightfully simple.

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-17 05:17:19

@Magoo frightfully, even.

@Glorfindel 2019-04-15 10:49:05

I think you can just use flying to describe them; flying birds sounds perfectly normal and isn't a tautology, nor does it only apply to birds in the air, cf. the title of the Wikipedia article 'Flying and gliding animals'.

It's obviously an awkward choice for your example sentence, where another option, volant, could be used instead:

2: flying or capable of flying

(source: Merriam-Webster)

@yunzen 2019-04-15 11:27:04

If you think of insects capable of flying, you call them flying insects, so flying seems to is a good choice

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 12:43:35

"Flying birds" describes birds that are flying; it is not accurate of birds that are capable of flight, but not presently flying.

@Glorfindel 2019-04-15 12:55:49

It depends on the context what it means exactly.

@Chris H 2019-04-15 12:55:58

@youcantryreachingme would you have the same objection if somebody described moles as burrowing creatures, or lions as meat-eating mammals? At this moment most moles aren't actively burrowing, and most lions aren't currently engaged in the process of eating meat. Or described the vikings as a sea-faring culture? Most of them spent most of their time on land.

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 13:02:16

@ChrisH Nope. Just with birds, mainly for the reason in the original question - the default seems to be to think of birds as flying. "Creatures" does not have any default correlation with "burrowing", in my opinion. Neither is "mammal" associated with "meat-eating" by default - there are plant eating mammals too. Likewise, when I hear "insects", I don't think of flying or non-flying insects by default. In all 3 of those examples there is no de facto kind. With birds, however, I agree the de facto assumption is that they are flighted. Hence they become "flying [flighted] birds" ...

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 13:03:22

... and the adjective "flying" becomes a description of present activity, rather than capability. This is basically an opinion though, based on my intuition via my experience with the language.

@LarsH 2019-04-15 13:34:24

@youcantryreachingme The phrase 'flying birds' can mean "birds that are presently in flight," and that might be the more common usage, but "birds that are capable of flight" is certainly a valid usage of the phrase. It might be necessary to establish context to make sure the meaning is understood correctly, as in "The bones of nonflying birds are heavier and less hollow than those of flying birds" (…)

@Darrel Hoffman 2019-04-15 19:18:15

Flying squirrels and flying foxes are other instances of the word being used to describe animals that can fly (or at least glide) even when they are not currently flying. You even see that word used to describe things that never actually fly, such as buttresses or trapezes...

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-15 21:02:22

@Aethenosity I didn't say the term bird doesn't automatically mean they can fly. I said the default seems to be to think of birds as flying. Anyhow, I'm dipping out of the conversation. I agree "flying" is correct. I think context makes a significant difference. I think in common conversation, "flying" will be understood as birds engaged in the act of flight. I think "flighted" is less ambiguous than "flying" and works in all contexts.

@Acccumulation 2019-04-16 15:00:53

When used as an adjective, the primary meaning of "flying" is "currently engaged in flight", but it can be used to mean "capable of flight". When used as a subject complement, the "currently engaged in flight" meaning is even more dominant. Similarly a "burrowing animal" could be both, but if you say "the animal is burrowing", the "is currently engaged" meaning dominates. With "meat-eating", the distinction is more clear. If you say "the lion is meat-eating", that means it is a carnivore. If you say "the lion is eating meat", that means it is currently engaged in the activity.

@J... 2019-04-16 16:59:27

volant is rather antiquated - it's a french loan word and its use in English peaked sometime before the mid 19th century. Other than a speaker knowing the word from French, it's unlikely that even advanced English speakers would know this word. Being misunderstood for "steering wheel" is more likely.

@youcantryreachingme 2019-04-17 05:16:30

PS. "Flying birds" does not meet the question, which asked for a single-word antonym. "Flying", by itself, as I noted, produces "Pigeons are flying because they can fly". Well, maybe that's their rationale for flying, but it isn't clear that statement is talking about flight capability.

@yunzen 2019-04-15 11:21:22

In German we have it easy: 'flugfähig' and 'flugunfähig'. Deepl gave me this translation

So it might be airworthy you are searching for, though it may only be used for contraptions and not for animals

@LarsH 2019-04-15 13:22:00

"may only be used for contraptions and not for animals." Yeah, airworthy birds would at best be seen as a humorous expression.

@Tom Hundt 2019-04-15 19:19:46


@Joshua 2019-04-16 01:31:55

Flightworthy... (I see it without any dash in my circles)

@Acccumulation 2019-04-16 15:03:36

Airworthy mean not merely that it can fly, but that it should. For instance the Boeing 737 Max can fly, but it's not airworthy.

@Lord Peter 2019-04-15 11:44:59



(of birds) Capable of flight.

@RedSonja 2019-04-15 13:41:30

I can't help feeling that it ought to be "flit".

@David Richerby 2019-04-16 12:46:38

@RedSonja Ah, but "flit" means to fly in a particular way and I can't help feeling that its past tense ought to be "flat".

@RedSonja 2019-04-16 13:03:01

@DavidRicherby To me "flit" means to run away silently, especially if you didn't pay your rent. "A moonlight flit". There is a past tense, "They've flitted."

@user307254 2019-04-15 10:18:45

I would call them just Birds without any adjective like 'flying' because of their definition which includes 'wings', and birds' wings are always used for flying:


: one of the movable feathered or membranous paired appendages by means of which a bird, bat, or insect is able to fly.

(According to MWD)

@James Random 2019-04-15 11:01:49

"Birds wings are always used for flying"? Not true. Most, maybe all, flightless birds have wings.

@Richard 2019-04-15 12:09:40

"Pigeons are birds because they can fly." Not really a good fit.

@James Random 2019-04-15 12:21:10

@user307254 Better. They are certainly not always used for flying. But it is still no use as an answer to the question: "What is the opposite of flightless birds?" / "Birds with wings" / "Like penguins?" / "No. Other birds with wings." / "Emu?"

@Aethenosity 2019-04-15 18:48:27

@user307254 just because it is the first and natural function of some birds (where it is NOT for others) doesn't mean that they are ONLY for flying. The first and natural function of wings for a penguin, ostrich, kiwi, cassowary, etc is NOT to fly

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