We Now Understand How Birds Fly, Thanks To A Goggle-Wearing Parrot

In 2016, scientists used lasers to track the wing movements of Obi, a Pacific parrotlet. The study found that our models of animal flight have been wrong all along.

Why It's Cool

Just like the wake left behind by a speedboat, a bird's wings leave behind invisible waves in the air. In the past, scientists have used computers to analyze those waves and calculate the forces that keep birds and other animals aloft and moving forward. In 2015, mechanical engineer David Lentink and his team developed a new system that can more precisely measure the way birds generate lift. The system, called an aerodynamic force platform, is about the size and shape of a large birdcage, with two bird perches inside. Of course, you can't study bird flight without a bird. Enter Obi.

For a 2016 study, Obi was trained to fly between the two perches, positioned about three feet (one meter) apart. The air was filled with a fine mist of water droplets and illuminated by a wide laser beam. Of course, lasers can damage eyesight—both in humans and in parrots—so Obi donned a tiny pair of goggles with a 3D printed frame and lenses cut from the same type of glasses the researchers wore. As Obi flew, the laser flashed at 1,000 times per second, illuminating the water droplets to show the air disturbances left by Obi's wings. High-speed cameras captured it all.

Smart Graphic

Why It's Important

Our past computer models—and as a result, school textbooks—determined that a bird's wings created whirling air patterns that stayed mostly stable behind the animal. But the new analysis showed that this was wrong: the patterns actually disintegrated behind Obi after just a few flaps of the bird's wings.

This new analysis means more than just a better understanding of animal flight. It means that, now that they know how birds really fly, engineers may be able to create better flying robots. Nature helps us out once again.

Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Content About Bird Flight And Nature

How A Goggle-Wearing Parrot Improved Our Understanding Of Flight

Yeah, yeah, groundbreaking science. But look at that cute parrot!

The Aerodynamic Force Platform In Action

Watch how Obi's bird colleagues use the device.

How Bird Wings Work

See how they're different than airplane wings.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 17, 2016

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