I never get tired of watching birds fly. It’s something that’s always entranced me: a warbler flitting between sun-dappled leaves, a gull wheeling lazily against the clear blue of a Manitoba summer sky, or the subtle whisper of an owl’s feathers as it returns to roost.
My fascination with flight started at an early age, much to the consternation of my parents who had to cart me off to the hospital to get my foot x-rayed after an ill-fated attempt to get airborne from the top of a ladder with willow branches strapped to my arms.
I’m pleased to report that there was no permanent damage and I now have a much better grasp on the mechanics of avian flight.
Physicists and biologists alike are still trying to sort out all of the details; but we get the general gist of how it works and much of that knowledge has resulted in the air travel we enjoy today.
A bird in the air has two forces to contend with: gravity (the inexorable force the earth exerts on everything, drawing us back to its core) and drag (the force of the air that pushes back against us whenever we try to move through it). In order to keep itself aloft, the wings of a bird must produce enough lift to counter gravity and reduce drag.
Much of that is achieved through the shape the wing. It takes a lot of energy to flap all the time to produce enough thrust to keep you up and moving forward, so having wings that can generate lift and reduce drag as you glide are a beneficial adaptation. Wings aren’t flat, whether they are on a bird or a plane. Flat wings don’t create lift. Air moving around a symmetrical wing passes over and under its surface at the same speed on both sides. However, if you curve the wing and create a cambered airfoil, then you’re getting somewhere. With a cambered wing, the air passing over the top moves much faster than the air passing below the wing. This creates a pressure differential, with lower pressure above the wing, where air is being swept away and high pressure below where air is piling up, pushing the wing and the bird attached to it, up into the sky. There wasn’t much camber to my willow branches, hence the crash landing.
Another way increase that pressure differential is to tilt the leading edge of the wing up, dropping the flight feathers down and building up more air underneath. However, you can go too far with this. Tilt more than about 15o and the airstream separates from the upper surface of the wing, creating turbulence, stalling the bird out. They use this to their advantage when landing, like the gull in the image above. To control the stall, most birds can raise their equivalent of a thumb called the alula. This nub of bone with usually about three feathers on it (you can just see it sticking up behind the top of the gull’s wing in the picture) can split the airstream at the leading edge, forcing it back over the surface of the wing.
Once they’ve vanquished gravity, there’s still the matter of drag threatening to push them back to the ground. Flapping, of course, will keep you moving; but there are several design considerations that birds have made over millenia of evolution. Birds that do a lot of gliding (e.g. gulls) have long, tapered wings that concentrate any vortices that might form at the wing tips (turbulence caused by the feathers slicing through the air) into two small areas that are as far apart as possible, reducing what is called ‘pressure drag’. Soaring birds, like hawks and Sandhill Cranes, take a different approach, spreading out their primary feathers like fingers, splitting up the wingtip vortices and reducing their impact.
If you found wrapping your head around all that was a bit of a challenge (like I did the first time I had to teach it), understanding what’s going on when a bird is flapping will give you a veritable headache. Things get complicated as the wing starts to move and lift and thrust start happening simultaneously. In a nutshell, however, the lift is generated by the curve in the part of the wing closest to the body, while the tips of the primaries produce the thrust, creating momentum that propels the bird through the air with a grace that always amazes me.
Sometimes taking a phenomenon apart and learning how each component works destroys the magic of the whole thing; but I haven’t found that to be the case with the flight of birds. Understanding the forces that make it possible for them to shed the earth’s shackles only makes it all the more remarkable.