Speeds and Wingbeat Frequencies of Migrating Birds Compared with Calculated Benchmarks

Journal Article

Title: Speeds and Wingbeat Frequencies of Migrating Birds Compared with Calculated Benchmarks
Authors: Pennycuick, C.
Publication Date:
July 09, 2001
Journal: Journal of Experimental Biology
Volume: 204
Pages: 3283-3294
Publisher: The Company of Biologists

Document Access

Website: External Link


Pennycuick, C. (2001). Speeds and Wingbeat Frequencies of Migrating Birds Compared with Calculated Benchmarks. Journal of Experimental Biology, 204, 3283-3294.

Sixteen species of birds passing Falsterbo in southwest Sweden during the autumn migration season were observed using short-range optical methods. Air speeds and wingbeat frequencies were measured, reduced to sea level, and compared with benchmark values computed by Flight.bas, a published flight performance program based on flight mechanics. The benchmark for air speed was the calculated sea-level value of the minimum power speed (Vmp). The mean speeds of three raptor species that flew by flap-gliding were below Vmp, apparently because the flap-glide cycle involved slowing down below Vmp when gliding and accelerating back up to Vmp when flapping. The mean speeds of 11 species that flew by continuous flapping were between 0.82Vmp and 1.27Vmp. Two passerine species that flew by bounding had mean speeds of 1.70Vmp and 1.96Vmp, but these high mean speeds reflected their ability to fly faster against head winds. These results do not support predictions from optimal migration theory, which suggest that migrating birds ‘should’ fly faster, relative to Vmp. However, observations were restricted for technical reasons to birds flying below 200 m and may not represent birds that were seriously committed to long-distance migration.The benchmark wingbeat frequency (fref) was derived from dimensional reasoning, not from statistical analysis of observations. Observed wingbeat frequencies ranged from 0.81fref to 1.05fref, except in the two bounding species, whose wingbeat frequencies appeared anomalously high. However, the mechanics of bounding with a power fraction q imply that gravity during the flapping phase is increased by a factor 1/q, and when the value of gravity was so adjusted in the expression for fref, the wingbeat frequencies of the two bounding species were predicted correctly as a function of the power fraction. In small birds with more muscle power than is required to fly at speeds near Vmp, bounding is an effective method of adjusting the specific work in the muscle fibres, allowing conversion efficiency to be maximised over a wide range of speeds.

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