Marc A. Badger, Hao Wang, and Robert Dudley
Flying organisms frequently confront the challenge of maintaining stability when moving within highly dynamic airflows near the Earth’s surface. Either aerodynamic or inertial forces generated by appendages and other structures, such as the tail, may be used to offset aerial perturbations, but these responses have not been well characterized. To better understand how hummingbirds modify wing and tail motions in response to individual gusts, we filmed Anna’s hummingbirds as they negotiated an upward jet of fast-moving air. Birds exhibited large variation in wing elevation, tail pitch and tail fan angles among transits as they repeatedly negotiated the same gust, and often exhibited a dramatic decrease in body angle (29±6 deg) post-transit. After extracting three-dimensional kinematic features, we identified a spectrum of control strategies for gust transit, with one extreme involving continuous flapping, no tail fanning and little disruption to body posture (23±3 deg downward pitch), and the other extreme characterized by dorsal wing pausing, tail fanning and greater downward body pitch (38±4 deg). The use of a deflectable tail on a glider model transiting the same gust resulted in enhanced stability and can easily be implemented in the design of aerial robots.