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Hummingbirds fly with their wings almost fully extended during their entire wingbeat. This pattern, associated with having proportionally short humeral bones, long distal wing elements, and assumed to be an adaptation for extended hovering flight, has lead to predictions that the aerodynamic mechanisms exploited by hummingbirds during hovering should be similar to those observed in insects. To test these predictions, we flew rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus, 3.3 g, n = 6) in a variable–speed wind tunnel (0-12 ms-1) and measured wake structure and dynamics using digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV). Unlike hovering insects, hummingbirds produced 75% of their weight support during downstroke and only 25% during upstroke, an asymmetry due to the inversion of their cambered wings during upstroke. Further, we have found no evidence of sustained, attached leading edge vorticity (LEV) during up or downstroke, as has been seen in similarly-sized insects - although a transient LEV is produced during the rapid change in angle of attack at the end of the downstroke. Finally, although an extended-wing upstroke during forward flight has long been thought to produce lift and negative thrust, we found circulation during downstroke alone to be sufficient to support body weight, and that some positive thrust was produced during upstroke, as evidenced by a vortex pair shed into the wake of all upstrokes at speeds of 4 – 12 m s-1.


Originally published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 41:1-5.

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