Research

Fluttering Feathers

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Birds do not always vocalize in order to make their songs. The male African broadbill, shown in the top video above, makes a very distinctive brreeeet in its flight displays, but as newly published research shows, the sound comes from its wings, not its voice. During the display, the broadbill spreads its primary feathers and sound is produced on the downstroke, when wingtip speeds reach about 16 m/s. By filming a broadbill wing with a high-speed camera in a wind tunnel at comparable air speeds, researchers could localize the sound production to the 6th and 7th primary feathers.

In the second video above, you can see these feathers twisting and fluttering in the breeze. This is an example of aeroelastic flutter, a phenomenon in which aerodynamic and structural forces couple to induce oscillations. The same phenomenon famously caused the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. In the birds, however, the flutter is non-destructive and the vibration produces audible sound which the other feathers modulate into the calls we hear. Broadbills aren’t the only birds to use this trick; some species of hummingbirds use flutter in their tail feathers during mating displays. (Video, image, and research credits: C. Clark et al.; additional videos here)

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