Gorgeous new research highlights some of the differences between fixed-wing flight and birds. Researchers trained a barn owl, tawny owl, and goshawk to glide through a cloud of helium-filled bubbles illuminated by a light sheet. By tracking bubbles’ movement after the birds’ passage, researchers could reconstruct the wake of these flyers.
As you can see in the animations above and the video below, the birds shed distinctive wingtip vortices similar to those seen behind aircraft. But if you look closely, you’ll see a second set of vortices, shed from the birds’ tails. This is decidedly different from aircraft, which actually generate negative lift with their tails in order to stabilize themselves.
Instead, gliding birds generate extra lift with their maneuverable tails, using them more like a pilot uses wing flaps during approach and landing. Unlike airplanes, though, birds rely on this mechanism for more than avoiding stall. It seems their tails actually help reduce their overall drag! (Image and research credit: J. Usherwood et al.; video credit: Nature News; submitted by Jorn C. and Kam-Yung Soh)