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Visual Control of Avian Flight

Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2017.00655

Pigeons (C. livia) follow their head during turning flight: head stabilization underlies the visual control of flight

  • 1Division of Biology and Bioengineering, California Institute of Technology, United States
  • 2Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, United States

Similar flight control principles operate across insect and vertebrate fliers. These principles indicate that robust solutions have evolved to meet complex behavioral challenges. Following from studies of visual and cervical feedback control of flight in insects, we investigate the role of head stabilization in providing feedback cues for controlling turning flight in pigeons. Based on previous observations that the eyes of pigeons remain at relatively fixed orientations within the head during flight, we test potential sensory control inputs derived from head and body movements during 90-degree aerial turns. We observe that periods of angular head stabilization alternate with rapid head repositioning movements (head saccades), and confirm that control of head motion is decoupled from aerodynamic and inertial forces acting on the bird’s continuously rotating body during turning flapping flight. Visual cues inferred from head saccades correlate with changes in flight trajectory; whereas the magnitude of neck bending predicts angular changes in body position. The control of head motion to stabilize a pigeon’s gaze may therefore facilitate extraction of important motion cues, in addition to offering mechanisms for controlling body and wing movements. Strong similarities between the sensory flight control of birds and insects may also inspire novel designs of robust controllers for human-engineered autonomous aerial vehicles.

Keywords: Head stabilization, turning flight, Columba livia, Sensory feedback control, gaze

Received: 26 Jul 2017; Accepted: 09 Nov 2017.

Edited by:

M Srinivasan, The University of Queensland, Australia

Reviewed by:

Szonya Durant, Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom
Xue-Xin Wei, Columbia University, United States  

Copyright: © 2017 Ros and Biewener. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Ivo G. Ros, California Institute of Technology, Division of Biology and Bioengineering, Pasadena, 91125, CA, United States,