How birds cope so well with turbulence

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Barn owl in flight

A scientist has uncovered how birds cope so well with turbulence with the help of a barn owl called Lily. Dr Shane Windsor discovered that their wings provide “suspension and respond mechanically to gusts” (The Times author Tom Whipple-science editor). Indeed, Dr Windsor describes the way the wings adjust as like a car’s suspension adjusting to bumps in the road.

Barn owl in flight

Barn owl in flight. Photo by Peter Mallett.

This is described as “preflexes”. In effect, birds adjust their flight automatically and instinctively before their brain has received a signal that a gust of wind has come along. This is not a purposeful, rational decision by a bird to adjust their wing positions. It appears to be all built in to their brain; hard-wired.

Dr Windsor was prompted to do the research because he works with drones. Drones struggle to fly in gusty conditions. Dr Windsor of the University of Bristol carried out the research because birds made it look easy and he was jealous of them. He employed a trained bird of prey to fly through gusty winds created artificially.

When the owl’s wings adjusted automatically he noticed, in slow motion, that the “wings moved massively” although it looked like a small flutter in real time.

Dr Windsor describes what the word “preflex” means.

A preflex is a mechanical response built in. The bird’s wings respond to the gust so quickly that it can’t be due to a response in the brain.

The body barely notices when the wings make the adjustment. In other words the wings’ suspension system is not transmitted to the body. After the preflexes, the brain could then adjust the wings further. He hopes to use his knowledge to improve the flight of unmanned aircraft.