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Birds of a Feather Flock Together, in a V Formation

Birds in flight align themselves in a perfect V formation, but why do they do this? So why don’t Z and N formations appeal to them instead?

V formation in birds

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Now the first ever extreme close-ups of birds flying in a V formation may help shed some light on this. Scientists have found that birds position themselves and time their wing beats so perfectly that according to aerodynamic theory, they minimize their energy use per USA Today. It’s a feat that requires each bird to monitor subtle changes in its winged traveler’s flight and alter its own path and stroke accordingly.

The new results “once again remind us that animals are much more complicated … than we often give them credit for,” says Kenny Breuer, a professor of engineering and ecology at Brown University who was not involved with the study. “They’re reacting in very sophisticated ways to maintain these V formations.”

Even aircraft can save fuel by flying in a V, which lead scientists to predict how closely bunched birds in V formations should be able to save the most energy. It’s not an easy task to measure the coordinates of a bunch of geese flying fast and overhead.

“It’s not something you can do with a pair of binoculars and timing it ‘one Mississippi, two Mississippi,’ ” says study author James Usherwood of Britain’s Royal Veterinary College.

The invention of highly precise, lightweight GPS units and sensors a few years back helped make it possible to find out exactly what birds are up to in flight. For their test subjects, researchers turned to northern bald ibises, a highly endangered species raised in captivity in Austria for reintroduction to the wild. The Ibises made for the perfect test subjects.

“To capture that data from the flight of birds in the wild is phenomenal … more than anyone could’ve hoped for from a live experiment,” Breuer says. “It’s just reassuring that (the birds) are doing everything they should be doing to save energy.”

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