The avian tail reduces body parasite drag by controlling flow separation and vortex shedding

Proc Biol Sci. 2001 Jul 7;268(1474):1405-10. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1635.


The aerodynamic effect of the furled avian tail on the parasite drag of a bird's body was investigated on mounted, frozen European starling Sturnus vulgaris in a wind tunnel at flight speeds between 6 and 14 m s(-1). Removal of tail rectrices and dorsal and ventral covert feathers at the base of the tail increased the total parasite drag of the body and tail by between 25 and 55%. Flow visualization and measurements of dynamic pressure in the tail boundary layer showed that in the intact bird a separation bubble forms on the ventral side of the body, and reattaches to the ventral side of the tail. This bubble is a consequence of the morphology of the body, with a rapid contraction posterior to the pelvis and hind legs. The tail and the covert feathers at its base act as a combined splitter plate and wedge to control vortex shedding and body wake development, and thereby are important to minimize drag. This hitherto unsuspected mechanism is central to understanding the morphology of the avian body, and may have had a significant influence on the evolution of avian tail morphology by pre-adapting the tail for radiation and specialization as an aerodynamic lifting structure and as an organ of communication in sexual selection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / anatomy & histology*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal
  • Tail