A good read in today's Independent, London:
Secret of the swift's aerial mastery is revealed
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Published: 26 April 2007
They swoop to the ground and perform breathtaking displays of aerial
acrobatics before soaring to dizzying heights above the clouds. Now
scientists believe they know how swifts are able to fly so fast and for
A series of experiments with a wind tunnel has shown just how it is
possible for a small bird such as a swift to spend so much of its life
in the air - eating, sleeping and even mating on the wing.
The secret is their ability to change the shape of their wings so that
they get the best performance for the smallest amount of energy -
scientists call it "wing morphing".
Swifts can often be seen and heard on summer evenings when they fly at
high speed in screeching flocks, but it is not widely known that they
spend almost all of their lives in flight, rarely landing except to lay
eggs and to rear their young.
Scientists estimate that over the course of its lifetime a swift will
cover 2.8 milion miles, a distance equivalent to six round-trips to the
Moon or 100 times around the Earth.
They catch up to 20,000 insects a day and have been monitored by radar
at night flying at a height of almost a mile where they spend much of
the time "roosting" in flight.
A team of Dutch and Swedish scientists has found that the swift is able
to take to a life of flight with such apparent ease because it is able
to "morph" its wing into a range of shapes to get the best aerodynamic
performance with the smallest energy costs.
"During flight, they continually change the shape of their wings from
spread wide to swept back," said David Lentink, a zoologist at
Wageningen University in The Netherlands.
"When they fly slowly and straight on, extended wings carry swifts 1.5
times farther and keep them airborne twice as long. To fly fast, swifts
need to sweep back their wings to gain a similar advantage," Dr Lentink
A study published in the journal Nature monitored the swift's flight
using a wind tunnel and the dismembered wings of swifts that had been
brought dead or dying to a number of Dutch bird sanctuaries.
The scientists compared the amount of "lift" and "drag" on each wing
according to its shape and the speed of the wind, which could be varied
by up to 30 metres per second to mimic different flight speeds.
At slower speeds, outstretched wings gave the best flight efficiency.
However, for flying fast and straight, it was better to sweep the wings
backwards into a "V" shape.
"Swept wings are also better for fast and tight turns, but this time
swept wings are better because they do not break as easily as extended
wings," Dr Lentink said.
"The main findings are that by changing wing shape, swifts can fly up to
60 per cent further, 100 per cent longer in terms of time, and their
turns can be up to three times better, sharper and faster," he said.
At night during sleep, swifts have their wings outstretched so that they
fly at slower speeds of between 8 and 10 metres per second. At these
speeds, swifts fly with maximum efficiency, with more gliding and less
flapping to maintain altitude, Dr Lentink said.
Wing morphing in swifts and other birds is being studied by scientists
at the US space agency Nasa who are interested in adapting the
techniques in the design of new aircraft and aerial-surveillance robots.
Dutch scientists are attempting to incorporate the latest findings into
the design of micro-airplanes that can fly like swifts, Dr Lentink said.
East Maitland, NSW
To unsubscribe from this mailing list,
send the message:
(in the body of the message, with no Subject line)