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Why Birds Fly In a V Formation 207

sciencehabit writes "Anyone watching the autumn sky knows that migrating birds fly in a V formation, but scientists have long debated why. A new study of ibises — where researchers took to microlight planes and recorded birds strapped with GPS in-flight — finds that these big-winged birds carefully position their wingtips and sync their flapping, presumably to catch the preceding bird's updraft and save energy during flight."
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Why Birds Fly In a V Formation

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  • Re:This is new? (Score:5, Informative)

    by noobermin ( 1950642 ) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:42PM (#45972309) Journal

    If you read the article, this has been posited, but now it has been tested by the experiment mentioned in the summary.

  • Re:This is new? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rutulian ( 171771 ) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @11:43PM (#45972683)

    This was my first reaction too. However, reading the article (I know, I must be new here) clears it up,

    There are two reasons birds might fly in a V formation: It may make flight easier, or they’re simply following the leader. Squadrons of planes can save fuel by flying in a V formation, and many scientists suspect that migrating birds do the same. Models that treated flapping birds like fixed-wing airplanes estimate that they save energy by drafting off each other, but currents created by airplanes are far more stable than the oscillating eddies coming off of a bird. “Air gets pretty darn wiggy behind a flapping wing,” says James Usherwood, a locomotor biomechanist at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London in Hatfield, where the research took place.

    Just as aerodynamic estimates would predict, the birds positioned themselves to fly just behind and to the side of the bird in front, timing their wing beats to catch the uplifting eddies. When a bird flew directly behind another, the timing of the flapping reversed so that it could minimize the effects of the downdraft coming off the back of the bird’s body.

    “From a behavioral perspective it’s really a breakthrough,” says David Lentink, a mechanical engineer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the work. “Showing that birds care about syncing their wing beats is definitely an important insight that we didn’t have before.”

    And from the actual research article,

    Many species travel in highly organized groups. The most quoted function of these configurations is to reduce energy expenditure and enhance locomotor performance of individuals in the assemblage. The distinctive V formation of bird flocks has long intrigued researchers and continues to attract both scientific and popular attention. The well-held belief is that such aggregations give an energetic benefit for those birds that are flying behind and to one side of another bird through using the regions of upwash generated by the wings of the preceding bird, although a definitive account of the aerodynamic implications of these formations has remained elusive.

    We conclude that the intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate awareness of the spatial wake structures of nearby flock-mates, and remarkable ability either to sense or predict it. We suggest that birds in V formation have phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes produced by flapping wings.

    So, it's a little bit of a behavioral science saving energy why they do it, or is saving energy just a happy consequence? And it's also a bit of a mechanism gain the most aerodynamic benefit requires adjustment of the wing and position to meet the updrafts, so how well do the birds do this?

  • Re:This is new? (Score:5, Informative)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Thursday January 16, 2014 @04:44AM (#45973985)
    It isn't. Someone else indicated that the devil is in the details. It was known they did it and why, but the synchronization of flapping wasn't documented before.

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle