Wing tucks are a response to atmospheric turbulence in the soaring flight of the steppe eagle Aquila nipalensis.
Reynolds KV., Thomas AL., Taylor GK.
Turbulent atmospheric conditions represent a challenge to stable flight in soaring birds, which are often seen to drop their wings in a transient motion that we call a tuck. Here, we investigate the mechanics, occurrence and causation of wing tucking in a captive steppe eagle Aquila nipalensis, using ground-based video and onboard inertial instrumentation. Statistical analysis of 2594 tucks, identified automatically from 45 flights, reveals that wing tucks occur more frequently under conditions of higher atmospheric turbulence. Furthermore, wing tucks are usually preceded by transient increases in airspeed, load factor and pitch rate, consistent with the bird encountering a headwind gust. The tuck itself immediately follows a rapid drop in angle of attack, caused by a downdraft or nose-down pitch motion, which produces a rapid drop in load factor. Positive aerodynamic loading acts to elevate the wings, and the resulting aerodynamic moment must therefore be balanced in soaring by an opposing musculoskeletal moment. Wing tucking presumably occurs when the reduction in the aerodynamic moment caused by a drop in load factor is not met by an equivalent reduction in the applied musculoskeletal moment. We conclude that wing tucks represent a gust response precipitated by a transient drop in aerodynamic loading.