What determines the speed at which birds fly?

Jul 17, 2007
Mistletoe bird

Aerodynamic scaling rules that explain how flight varies according to weight and wing loading have been used to compare general speeds of a wide range of flyers, from the smallest insects to the largest aircraft.

In a paper published this week in the open access journal PLoS Biology, Thomas Alerstam, Mikael Rosen, and colleagues from the University of Lund in Sweden analyze the flight speeds of 138 bird species and overturn the general assumption that maximum flight speed of a species is solely determined by such rules. Flight speed doesn’t just depend on the size of the bird (mass and wing loading), but also reflects functional constraints and the evolutionary lineage of the species in question.

The authors argue that only empirical measurements of flight speeds enable you to evaluate how general such aerodynamic rules really are. They used tracking radar measurements of the cruising speeds of migrating birds (collected by themselves and others) to do the analysis and provide the comprehensive dataset with the paper (e.g. this contains the flight speed of approximately one-third of all European bird species).

Their analysis reveals that the difference between the speed of small and large birds is not as great as expected; they suggest that this surprising result is likely to be the result of disadvantages associated with very slow speeds among smaller birds and with very fast speeds for larger birds. They also show that the evolutionary history of the species helps explain much of the variation in flight speed: species of the same group tend to fly at similar characteristic speeds. For example, birds of prey and herons had slow flight speeds, on average, given their mass and wing loading, whereas the average speed for songbirds and shorebirds was faster than would be predicted.

This study suggests that there are different functional adaptations affecting flight differently among different types of bird, and that there exists a diversity of cruising flight characteristics among birds that remain to be explored and understood.

Source: Public Library of Science

Explore further: Honey bees sting Texas man about 1,000 times

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tiny muscles help bats fine-tune flight, stiffen wing skin

May 23, 2014

Bats appear to use a network of hair-thin muscles in their wing skin to control the stiffness and shape of their wings as they fly, according to a new study. The finding provides new insight about the aerodynamic ...

Environmental conditions may impact bird migration

May 14, 2014

Wind conditions during spring migration may be a predictor of apparent annual survival and the timing of breeding in yellow warblers, according to results published May 14, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Ann ...

Recommended for you

Rising temperatures can be hard on dogs

11 hours ago

The "dog days of summer" are here, but don't let the phrase fool you. This hot time of year can be dangerous for your pup, says a Kansas State University veterinarian.

Monkeys fear big cats less, eat more, with humans around

14 hours ago

Some Monkeys in South Africa have been found to regard field scientists as human shields against predators and why not if the alternative is death by leopard? The researchers found the monkeys felt far safer ...

User comments : 0