Aerodynamics of wing-assisted incline running in birds

Bret W. Tobalske, Kenneth P. Dial

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Wing-assisted incline running (WAIR) is a form of locomotion in which a bird flaps its wings to aid its hindlimbs in climbing a slope. WAIR is used for escape in ground birds, and the ontogeny of this behavior in precocial birds has been suggested to represent a model analogous to transitional adaptive states during the evolution of powered avian flight. To begin to reveal the aerodynamics of flap-running, we used digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) and measured air velocity, vorticity, circulation and added mass in the wake of chukar partridge Alectoris chukar as they engaged in WAIR (incline 65-85°; N=7 birds) and ascending flight (85°, N=2). To estimate lift and impulse, we coupled our DPIV data with three-dimensional wing kinematics from a companion study. The ontogeny of lift production was evaluated using three age classes: baby birds incapable of flight [6-8 days post hatching (d.p.h.)] and volant juveniles (25-28 days) and adults (45+ days). All three age classes of birds, including baby birds with partially emerged, symmetrical wing feathers, generated circulation with their wings and exhibited a wake structure that consisted of discrete vortex rings shed once per downstroke. Impulse of the vortex rings during WAIR was directed 45±5° relative to horizontal and 21±4° relative to the substrate. Absolute values of circulation in vortex cores and induced velocity increased with increasing age. Normalized circulation was similar among all ages in WAIR but 67% greater in adults during flight compared with flap-running. Estimated lift during WAIR was 6.6% of body weight in babies and between 63 and 86% of body weight in juveniles and adults. During flight, average lift was 110% of body weight. Our results reveal for the first time that lift from the wings, rather than wing inertia or profile drag, is primarily responsible for accelerating the body toward the substrate during WAIR, and that partially developed wings, not yet capable of flight, can produce useful lift during WAIR. We predict that neuromuscular control or power output, rather than external wing morphology, constrain the onset of flight ability during development in birds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1742-1751
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 2007


  • Added mass
  • Circulation
  • Digital particle image velocimetry
  • Lift
  • Ontogeny
  • Vorticity


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