€2 million ERC Starter grant to investigate how wind and other airflows affect the costs of flight in birds

A huge amount of research is underway to understand how changes in the terrestrial and marine environments will affect animal life. The aerial environment is also changing, and much less is known about how animals will be impacted by things like changing wind strength.

Factors such as wind are fundamentally important to birds and other flying animals, because they affect the energy required to fly. However, understanding how flight costs vary with changing wind conditions is tricky, because as the weather changes, so too does the behaviour of the birds.

Dr Emily Shepard has been awarded a €2 million ERC Starter grant to investigate how wind and other airflows affect the costs of flight in birds.

Emily Shepard

The project involves building a unique wind tunnel at Swansea University to fly birds. Dr Emily Shepard said “the use of wind tunnels to study bird flight began in earnest in the 1960s and these facilities have been hugely important for the field ever since. They produce smooth airflows and enable researchers to study flight at wonderfully close range.” 

Birds that have been trained to fly in the wind tunnel will be equipped with new, miniature tracking devices developed at Swansea University. This will enable the team to test new ways of measuring the energy expended during flight.

The team will then use the same loggers to estimate the energy that birds use when flying in the wild.

The project will focus on relatively large birds, including gulls. These are of particular interest as many of them show sophisticated responses to air currents, seeking out specific features that allow them to use soaring flight.

Dr Shepard said “one of the reasons that the aerial environment is so interesting is that it is almost never still. You get regions of updraughts and downdraughts, gusts and eddies, and an area that might be profitable to fly through on one day, may be just the area to avoid on the next”.

It is only by understanding how birds alter their flight behaviour in relation to this complex flow field, and the consequences this has for the energy they spend, that we can start to understand how changing wind conditions may affect birds. 

The project team brings together international experts from a range of disciplines, including Professor Anders Hedenström, a leader in the field of flight biomechanics (University of Lund, Sweden), Dr Andrew Ross, a meteorologist based at Leeds University, UK, and Dr Steve Portugal, a comparative ecophysiologist (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK).