Reconstruction of the wake velocity field from the time resolved PIV images from Flow pattern similarities in the near wake of three bird species suggest a common role for unsteady aerodynamic effects in lift generation

Analysis of the aerodynamics of flapping wings has yielded a general understanding of how birds generate lift and thrust during flight. However, the role of unsteady aerodynamics in avian flight due to the flapping motion still holds open questions in respect to performance and efficiency. We studied the flight of three distinctive bird species: western sandpiper (<i>Calidris mauri</i>), European starling (<i>Sturnus vulgaris</i>) and American robin (<i>Turdus migratorius</i>) using long-duration, time-resolved Particle Image Velocimetry, to better characterize and advance our understanding of how birds use unsteady flow features to enhance their aerodynamic performances during flapping flight. We show that during transitions between downstroke and upstroke phases of the wing cycle, the near wake-flow structures vary and generate unique sets of vortices. These structures appear as quadruple layers of concentrated vorticity aligned at an angle with respect to the horizon (named as ‘double branch’). They occur where the circulation gradient changes sign, which implies that the forces exerted by the flapping wings of birds are modified during the transition phases. The flow patterns are similar in (non-dimensional) size and magnitude for the different birds suggesting that there are common mechanisms operating during flapping flight across species. These flow patterns occur at the same phase where drag reduction of about 5% per cycle and lift enhancement were observed in our prior studies. We propose that these flow structures should be considered in wake flow models that seek to account for the contribution of unsteady flow to lift and drag.