Pigeons steer like helicopters and generate down- and upstroke lift during low speed turns


Ros IG, Bassman LC, Badger MA, Pierson AN, Biewener AA. Pigeons steer like helicopters and generate down- and upstroke lift during low speed turns. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S AProc Natl Acad Sci U S AProc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108 :19990-5.

Date Published:

Dec 13


Turning is crucial for animals, particularly during predator-prey interactions and to avoid obstacles. For flying animals, turning consists of changes in (i) flight trajectory, or path of travel, and (ii) body orientation, or 3D angular position. Changes in flight trajectory can only be achieved by modulating aerodynamic forces relative to gravity. How birds coordinate aerodynamic force production relative to changes in body orientation during turns is key to understanding the control strategies used in avian maneuvering flight. We hypothesized that pigeons produce aerodynamic forces in a uniform direction relative to their bodies, requiring changes in body orientation to redirect those forces to turn. Using detailed 3D kinematics and body mass distributions, we examined net aerodynamic forces and body orientations in slowly flying pigeons (Columba livia) executing level 90 degrees turns. The net aerodynamic force averaged over the downstroke was maintained in a fixed direction relative to the body throughout the turn, even though the body orientation of the birds varied substantially. Early in the turn, changes in body orientation primarily redirected the downstroke aerodynamic force, affecting the bird's flight trajectory. Subsequently, the pigeon mainly reacquired the body orientation used in forward flight without affecting its flight trajectory. Surprisingly, the pigeon's upstroke generated aerodynamic forces that were approximately 50% of those generated during the downstroke, nearly matching the relative upstroke forces produced by hummingbirds. Thus, pigeons achieve low speed turns much like helicopters, by using whole-body rotations to alter the direction of aerodynamic force production to change their flight trajectory.


Ros, Ivo GBassman, Lori CBadger, Marc APierson, Alyssa NBiewener, Andrew AengResearch Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.2011/11/30 06:00Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Dec 13;108(50):19990-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1107519108. Epub 2011 Nov 28.