Chestnut-breasted Coronet Hummingbird by Dr. Ferry, Getty Images
The skies have always captured the human imagination, inspiring dreams of flight and exploration. But long before humans took to the skies, birds had already mastered the art and science of flight (apologies to penguins and ostriches that aren’t quite there yet). Throughout history, and even today, new advancements in aerospace can be traced back to bird anatomy, shaping the way we consider navigation, speed, fuel efficiency, aircraft maneuverability and stability, noise, and safety. This practice even has its own term–Biomimicry–or biologically inspired engineering, using observations found in nature to solve human challenges.
Early Observations and Inspiration
Ancient cultures marveled at the effortless grace of birds in flight and sought to replicate their abilities. Greek mythology exemplifies this fascination through the legend of Icarus, who made wings from wax and feathers to carry him through the sky, and eventually too close to the sun.
However, it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that significant progress was made in aviation design inspired by bird anatomy. One of the key figures in this period was Otto Lilienthal, often referred to as the “Glider King.” He meticulously studied bird flight, even publishing a book in 1889 called “Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation,” recognizing the importance of wing shape and curvature. Lilienthal’s glider designs, inspired by bird wings, paved the way for modern aviation pioneers.
Cigarette card of Otto Lilienthal flying glider, Canva | Turkey Vulture by Northfork Light for Getty Images
From Feathered Wings to Fixed Wings
Birds possess a variety of wing shapes, each adapted for specific flight styles. This diversity has served as a foundation for the development of different aircraft designs. For instance, the sweeping and elongated wings of soaring birds like eagles and albatrosses have influenced the design of gliders and long-range airplanes. These wing shapes optimize lift and endurance, enabling airplanes to cover vast distances with minimal effort.
In contrast, the short and pointed wings of birds like falcons and hawks have inspired fighter jet designs. These wings allow for quick maneuverability and high-speed flight, essential for aerial combat and evasive maneuvers. The avian example has guided engineers in optimizing the balance between lift and agility, leading to advancements in both military and commercial aviation.
Bald Eagle by Tina Stafford | Boeing C-17 by Richard Calver
Blue Angels Fighter Jets by John Biondo | Peregrin Falcon in flight by Aria Seppaffiths
Lifting like a Balloon
While fixed-wing aircrafts took inspiration from bird wings, blimps and airships were inspired by the concept of buoyancy observed in birds like the helium-filled bladder of the swift, which enables it to remain airborne for extended periods. Early airships incorporated the principle of buoyancy and utilized lightweight materials to achieve lift.
Furthermore, the streamlined bodies of birds like penguins and cormorants diving into the water have influenced the design of airships. These bird species are adapted for minimizing water resistance, just as airships are designed to reduce air resistance. As a result, airship designs prioritize aerodynamic shapes that enable smoother movement through the air.
Humbolt Penguin by Wakila | Zeppelin Airship by Dmitry Rukhlenko
Birds aren’t limited to gliding and soaring; they can also hover and fly in confined spaces. This unique ability has inspired the development of helicopters and drones, which utilize rotary wings for vertical takeoff and landing. The anatomy of birds, like hummingbirds, with their rapid figure-eight-shaped wing beats and ability to hover in place as well as fly backward and sideways, served as a model for achieving similar capabilities in helicopters.
Additionally, birds’ flexible wing movements, achieved through the articulation of their wing joints, have guided the design of rotor systems in helicopters. Engineers have replicated this adaptability to create rotor systems that can change angles and orientations rapidly, allowing helicopters to maneuver in tight spaces and perform complex aerial tasks.
Anna’s Hummingbirds hovering by Keith Szafranski, Canva
Beyond the physical structures of bird anatomy, aviation designers have also drawn inspiration from the strategies birds employ for efficient flight. For instance, the V-shaped formations used by migrating birds like geese and ducks have inspired fuel-efficient flight patterns for long-haul flights. According to leading airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, two aircrafts flying close together during a long-haul “paired” flight have the potential to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by at least 5-10% per trip. Researchers from Stanford University conducted a similar study and concluded that jets could save up to 15% of their fuel by flying this way and rotating the leader position, as birds do. Flying in a V formation takes advantage of the upwash of air generated by the wings of the aircraft in front, reducing drag and conserving fuel, or, in the case of birds, energy.
Additionally, the concept of thermals—rising columns of warm air that birds use for lift—has influenced glider design. Gliders are often equipped with instruments to detect and exploit thermals, extending their flight duration and range.
Canada Goose Migration by PopAndreea, Canva
It isn’t only flight that birds have inspired. Japan is well known for the efficiency and speed of its train system, the Shinkansen, and its 700 series design was directly inspired by the kingfisher.
The highest-speed Japanese trains can reach 375 mph (603 km/h). This high speed is a problem when a train passes through a tunnel where the compressed air pressure causes a big ‘boom’ sound. To address this problem, engineers examined the kingfisher, a bird that hunts by diving beak first at speeds of up to 25 mph but makes almost no sound when entering the water.
Japanese engineers added a similar long beak-shaped nose to the front of their trains to alter the air pressure in the tunnel and prevent the noisy sonic boom upon exit.
Kingfisher dive by Mauribo, Canva
Shinkansen high speed train by Chris Putnam, Canva
Inspiring the Future
Throughout history, bird anatomy has served as a wealth of inspiration for engineers and designers, shaping the evolution of the aviation industry. From the graceful soaring of eagles to the precise hovering of hummingbirds, each aspect of bird flight has provided valuable insights into aerodynamics, lift, maneuverability, and efficiency.
The legacy of these avian influences can be seen in the marvels of modern aviation that in many ways mirror their own migratory journeys–allow us to traverse continents, explore remote locations, and overcome the boundaries of Earth. As technology continues to advance, it’s likely that we’ll uncover even more ways to harness the remarkable capabilities of birds, taking our aircraft designs to new heights and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the realm of flight.
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