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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

Field estimates of body drag coefficient on the basis of dives in passerine birds
A. Hedenstrom, F. Liechti


During forward flight, a bird's body generates drag that tends to decelerate its speed. By flapping its wings, or by converting potential energy into work if gliding, the bird produces both lift and thrust to balance the pull of gravity and drag. In flight mechanics, a dimensionless number, the body drag coefficient (C(D,par)), describes the magnitude of the drag caused by the body. The drag coefficient depends on the shape (or streamlining), the surface texture of the body and the Reynolds number. It is an important variable when using flight mechanical models to estimate the potential migratory flight range and characteristic flight speeds of birds. Previous wind tunnel measurements on dead, frozen bird bodies indicated that C(D,par) is 0.4 for small birds, while large birds should have lower values of approximately 0.2. More recent studies of a few birds flying in a wind tunnel suggested that previous values probably overestimated C(D,par). We measured maximum dive speeds of passerine birds during the spring migration across the western Mediterranean. When the birds reach their top speed, the pull of gravity should balance the drag of the body (and wings), giving us an opportunity to estimate C(D,par). Our results indicate that C(D,par) decreases with increasing Reynolds number within the range 0.17-0.77, with a mean C(D,par) of 0.37 for small passerines. A somewhat lower mean value could not be excluded because diving birds may control their speed below the theoretical maximum. Our measurements therefore support the notion that 0.4 (the ‘old’ default value) is a realistic value of C(D,par) for small passerines.