The Weekly Chirp: Birds and Engineering

To cap off a wonderful fall of avian anecdotes and bird facts, let’s explore how humans have utilized bird morphology to increase the efficiency of modern-day technology. The science and art of mimicking biological structures and functions to solve technical problems, known as biomimicry, is used across scientific fields, ranging from glue derived from the threads blue mussels use to attach themselves to rocks to birds being used as models for airplanes.

Leonardo da Vinci spearheaded the beginning of avian biomimicry back in the 15th century (woah). He was particularly interested in studying our winged friends in an attempt to enable human flight, something he unfortunately was unable to achieve during his lifetime. However, his early work provided the necessary foundation for the Wright brothers, who successfully designed and operated a plane in the first years of the 20th century. Nowadays, airplanes, while lacking the beauty of birds, do share similar morphological characteristics that support flight such as tapered wings (blunt in the front and tapering in the back which causes rise). The long take-offs required for these massive aerial machines were inspired by arguably the best flyer in the avian world: the albatross. These pelagic (sea-dwelling) birds boast over 8-foot wing spans, and spend most of the year flying at sea, only landing during the breeding season when it’s time to get it on for a month or so. Given their relatively big size, albatrosses must run and flap for a substantial distance before they get enough lift to fly — just like an airplane!

The bullet trains of Japan owe their wind-breaking speeds to birds as well. For years, bullet trains emitted a booming, loud noise upon leaving tunnels due to the build-up of air along the nose of the train. In constant search for a solution to this problem, designers turned to the kingfisher for inspiration. Kingfishers, as their name suggests, spend their days on perches above bodies of water, searching for unlucky fish that scurry helplessly below. These elite fish-killers have evolved a dagger-like bill that allows them to pierce the water at such a speed that offers their scaly victims no chance for survival. By altering the blunt nose of bullet trains into one that closely resembled that of kingfishers, engineers effectively reduced the booming noise emitted by bullet trains. Thanks, birds!

On the subject of noise, many aircraft and wind-turbine engineers are currently investigating ways to reduce the sound emitted by these machines, and have recently turned to owls for the answer. Owls are renowned for their ability to hunt silently, which comes as a result of intricate flight feathers lined with downy (really soft and light) material. These specialized feathers allow them to fly at fast speeds while remaining undetected by the oblivious moles in the grasses below, which they then tear to pieces for dinner. The question for engineers now is how to replicate and synthesize these specialized feathers in such a way that they both reduce noise emissions from machines while maintaining their functionality. Good luck.