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Automatic aeroelastic devices in the wings of a steppe eagle Aquila nipalensis
Anna C. Carruthers, Adrian L. R. Thomas, Graham K. Taylor


Here we analyse aeroelastic devices in the wings of a steppe eagle Aquila nipalensis during manoeuvres. Chaotic deflections of the upperwing coverts observed using video cameras carried by the bird (50 frames s–1) indicate trailing-edge separation but attached flow near the leading edge during flapping and gust response, and completely stalled flows upon landing. The underwing coverts deflect automatically along the leading edge at high angle of attack. We use high-speed digital video (500 frames s–1) to analyse these deflections in greater detail during perching sequences indoors and outdoors. Outdoor perching sequences usually follow a stereotyped three-phase sequence comprising a glide, pitch-up manoeuvre and deep stall. During deep stall, the spread-eagled bird has aerodynamics reminiscent of a cross-parachute. Deployment of the underwing coverts is closely phased with wing sweeping during the pitch-up manoeuvre, and is accompanied by alula protraction. Surprisingly, active alula protraction is preceded by passive peeling from its tip. Indoor flights follow a stereotyped flapping perching sequence, with deployment of the underwing coverts closely phased with alula protraction and the end of the downstroke. We propose that the underwing coverts operate as an automatic high-lift device, analogous to a Kruger flap. We suggest that the alula operates as a strake, promoting formation of a leading-edge vortex on the swept hand-wing when the arm-wing is completely stalled, and hypothesise that its active protraction is stimulated by its initial passive deflection. These aeroelastic devices appear to be used for flow control to enhance unsteady manoeuvres, and may also provide sensory feedback.

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