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.
- energy landscape