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Letters to "Nature" Concerning
Animal Locomotion (S240 & S241: 1874)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A pair of letters to the Editor concerning the mechanics of bird flight printed on pages 301 and 403, respectively, of Volume 9 of Nature. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S240241.htm

Animal Locomotion (S240)

    While admitting that Dr. Pettigrew appears to have made mistakes in his figures, and that he has not explained his views in the clearest manner, nevertheless it appears to me that, on the very important question of whether a bird's wing during onward flight moves downward and forward or downward and backward, he is right in asserting the former to be the fact.

    The arguments of Mr. Garrod and Mr. Ward against this view seem to be founded on two assumptions--that the wing during its down-stroke is an inflexible plane, and that during its upward motion the quills open so perfectly that there is neither vertical nor horizontal resistance. But every feather of a wing is highly flexible towards its extremity, so that during the down-stroke the whole posterior margin of the wing must be curved up by the pressure of the air, thus forming a highly effective propelling surface owing to the rapid motion of this part of the wing. During the upward stroke the feathers open freely so as greatly to diminish, though not wholly to prevent, downward reaction; but the broad soft web of each quill will be bent down by the rapid escape of air between the quills, and this will necessarily give a forward motion, probably equal to that attained during the down-stroke, in which the small curved surface has a greater resistance and more rapid motion. If then the up- and the down-stroke both produce onward motion, the resultant of this motion will be in the direction of the mean position of the wings, which we may take to be about that of the body of the bird; but if the down-stroke were directed backward and the up-stroke forward, the resultant onward motion would be obliquely downward, and this downward angle of motion would tend to be so much increased by the continual gravitation of the body that the surplus vertical reaction of the down-stroke over the up-stroke would not be able to overcome it. A slight upward angle of the mean position of the wing-plane seems therefore to be essential to secure horizontal forward motion as a general resultant of the upward and downward action of the wings under the influence of gravitation; and to Dr. Pettigrew belongs the merit of showing that this is one of the most important characteristics of the flight of birds, and, probably in a still greater degree, of that of insects. A bird's wing is a highly complex apparatus, subject to a variety of flexures and motions in every feather; and it is only by a careful consideration of the action of the resisting medium on these variously curved elastic surfaces, both during the upward and downward motion of the wings, that we can arrive at any definite notion of their supporting and propelling effect. The experiments of Prof. Marey do not seem to contradict the theory of Dr. Pettigrew, as far as I can make out from an abstract of these given in the "Ibis" for 1870, p. 267; though, as his apparatus only gave the motion of the wing relatively to the body of the bird, they are not of very much value in determining the absolute angular position of the wings, which is what we want to arrive at. The highly-inclined position of a hovering bird is more to the point, as any less degree of inclination would lead to onward motion.

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Animal Locomotion (S241)

    My former letter on this subject was merely to show that, mechanically, Dr. Pettigrew's view of the forward motion or inclination of a bird's wing during the down stroke was less absurd than had been supposed, and even seemed necessary to flight. I did not profess to have made accurate observation or experiment on the point. I accept, therefore, the observation of the Duke of Argyll as to the vertical motion of the heron's wing; but as he expressly refers to its great concavity, that would give a vertical down stroke the effect of a somewhat forward stroke of a flatter wing. The proper inference would therefore seem to be, that in birds with less concave wings the stroke is slightly directed forwards. As to the last two paragraphs of his Grace's letter, he will see, if he refers again to mine, that he has quoted words I never used. I impute to Dr. Pettigrew the "merit of showing" that the "slight upward angle of the mean position of the wing plane is essential to secure horizontal forward motion as a general resultant," &c., and this is exactly what the Duke denies.

    Mr. James Ward's elaborate analysis of the down stroke of a bird's wing simply shows (if correct) that in the position he ascribes to it (moving downward and backward) it would send the bird horizontally forward. Of course it would. But then what becomes of the bird during the up stroke in an opposite direction? The bird is then falling, and by the downward reaction of all the solid surface of the anterior margin of the wing, and of all the feathers, however, obliquely turned, it is driven farther downwards; and as this takes place between every two down strokes, and approximately during an equal space of time, how is a horizontal average motion to be produced unless the down stroke alone produces, not a horizontal, but a highly-inclined upward motion? Mr. Ward's whole argument appears to me to ignore the great downward reaction, added to gravitation, during every up stroke, which requires that the down stroke should not merely support the bird, but raise it up vertically just as much as during the up-stoke it has fallen vertically. The matter, however, is not to be settled by discussing theoretically, but by observation and experiment. I simply maintain that the results of Dr. Pettigrew's observations and experiments are not, as supposed, inconsistent with mechanical principles; and nothing in your correspondent's letter induces me to alter that opinion.

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