Gliding for a Free Lunch: Biomechanics of Foraging Flight in Common Swifts ( Apus apus)

J Exp Biol. 2018 Nov 19;221(Pt 22):jeb186270. doi: 10.1242/jeb.186270.


Although the biomechanics of animal flight have been well studied in laboratory apparatus such as wind tunnels for many years, the applicability of these data to natural flight behaviour has been examined in few instances and mostly in the context of long-distance migration. Here, we used rotational stereo-videography to record the free-flight trajectories of foraging common swifts. We found that, despite their exquisite manoeuvring capabilities, the swifts only rarely performed high-acceleration turns. More surprisingly, we also found that despite feeding on tiny insects probably moving with ambient flow, the birds adjust their air speed to optimize cost of transport over distance. Finally, swifts spent only 25% of their time flapping; the majority of their time (71%) was spent in extended wing gliding, during which the average power expended for changes in speed or elevation was 0.84 W kg-1 and not significantly different from 0. Thus, gliding swifts extracted sufficient environmental energy to pay the cost of flight during foraging.

Keywords: Glide polar; Kinematics; Rotational stereo videography; Soaring; Thermal; Wind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acceleration
  • Animals
  • Appetitive Behavior / physiology
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Insecta
  • Video Recording
  • Wings, Animal / physiology

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.89b2c4s