Fine scale flight strategies of gulls in urban airflows indicate risk and reward in city living

Emily L. C. Shepard, Cara Williamson, Shane Windsor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

48 Citations (Scopus)
362 Downloads (Pure)


Birds modulate their flight paths in relation to regional and global airflows in order to reduce their travel costs. Birds should also respond to fine-scale airflows, although the incidence and value of this remains largely unknown. We resolved the 3-dimensional trajectories of gulls flying along a built up coastline, and used computation fluid dynamic models to examine how gulls reacted to airflows around buildings. Birds systematically altered their flight trajectories with wind conditions to exploit updraughts over features as small as a row of low-rise buildings. This provides the first evidence that human activities can change patterns of space-use in flying birds by altering the profitability of the airscape. At finer scales still, gulls varied their position to select a narrow range of updraught values, rather than exploiting the strongest updraughts available, and their precise positions were consistent with a strategy to increase their velocity control in gusty conditions. Ultimately, strategies such as these could help unmanned aerial vehicles negotiate complex airflows. Overall, airflows around fine-scale features have profound implications for flight control and energy use, and consideration of this could lead to a paradigm-shift in the way ecologists view the urban environment.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20150394
Number of pages7
JournalPhilosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1704
Early online date15 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 26 Sep 2016


  • urbanisation
  • energy landscape
  • flight
  • soaring
  • UAV
  • gull


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