The influence of flight style on the aerodynamic properties of avian wings as fixed lifting surfaces

John J. Lees, Grigorios Dimitriadis, Robert L. Nudds

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The diversity of wing morphologies in birds reflects their variety of flight styles and the associated aerodynamic and inertial requirements. Although the aerodynamics underlying wing morphology can be informed by aeronautical research, important differences exist between planes and birds. In particular, birds operate at lower, transitional Reynolds numbers than do most aircraft. To date, few quantitative studies have investigated the aerodynamic performance of avian wings as fixed lifting surfaces and none have focused upon the differences between wings from different flight style groups. Dried wings from 10 bird species representing three distinct flight style groups were mounted on a force/torque sensor within a wind tunnel in order to test the hypothesis that wing morphologies associated with different flight styles exhibit different aerodynamic properties. Morphological differences manifested primarily as differences in drag rather than lift. Maximum lift coefficients did not differ between groups, whereas minimum drag coefficients were lowest in undulating flyers (Corvids). The lift to drag ratios were lower than in conventional aerofoils and data from free-flying soaring species; particularly in high frequency, flapping flyers (Anseriformes), which do not rely heavily on glide performance. The results illustrate important aerodynamic differences between the wings of different flight style groups that cannot be explained solely by simple wing-shape measures. Taken at face value, the results also suggest that wing-shape is linked principally to changes in aerodynamic drag, but, of course, it is aerodynamics during flapping and not gliding that is likely to be the primary driver.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere2495
    Issue number10
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2016


    • Aerodynamics
    • Drag
    • Flight
    • Flight style
    • Lift
    • Wings


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