Mt. Vernon Register-News

Community News Network

January 21, 2014

Why birds fly in a V formation

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 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.

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.

The study, published online Wednesday in Nature, took advantage of an existing project to reintroduce endangered northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) to Europe. Scientists used a microlight plane to show hand-raised birds their ancestral migration route from Austria to Italy. A flock of 14 juveniles carried data loggers specially built by Usherwood and his lab. The device's GPS determined each bird's flight position to within 30 cm, and an accelerometer showed the timing of the wing flaps.

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. "We didn't think this was possible," Usherwood says, considering that the feat requires careful flight and incredible awareness of one's neighbors. "Perhaps these big V formation birds can be thought of quite like an airplane with wings that go up and down."

The findings likely apply to other long-winged birds, such as pelicans, storks, and geese, Usherwood says. Smaller birds create more complex wakes that would make drafting too difficult. The researchers did not attempt to calculate the bird's energy savings because the necessary physiological measurements would be too invasive for an endangered species. Previous studies estimate that birds can use 20 percent to 30 percent less energy while flying in a V.

"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." To definitively say that the birds are drafting off each other, however, the exact location of the eddies and the areas of downdraft would need to be measured on ibises, which would require flying them in a wind tunnel - a far more intrusive process than simply carrying a data logger.

Scientists do not know how the birds find that aerodynamic sweet spot, but they suspect that the animals align themselves either by sight or by sensing air currents through their feathers. Alternatively, they may move around until they find the location with the least resistance. In future studies, the researchers will switch to more common birds, such as pigeons or geese. They plan to investigate how the animals decide who sets the course and the pace, and whether a mistake made by the leader can ripple through the rest of the flock to cause traffic jams.

"It's a pretty impressive piece of work as it is, but it does suggest that there's a lot more to learn," says Ty Hedrick, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies flight aerodynamics in birds and insects. However they do it, he says, "birds are awfully good hang-glider pilots."

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Arizona's prolonged lethal injection is fourth in U.S. this year

    Arizona's execution of double-murderer Joseph Wood marked the fourth time this year that a state failed to dispatch a convict efficiently, according to the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal group.3

    July 24, 2014

  • Facebook continues moneymaking trend

    Facebook seems to have figured out - for now at least - the holy grail for all media right now: how to make money selling mobile ads.

    July 24, 2014

  • 072214 Diamond Llama 1.jpg Llama on the loose corralled in Missouri town

    A llama on the lam cruised Main Street Tuesday before it mistook a resident’s fenced backyard for a place to grab a meal and freshen up.

    July 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 2.00.42 PM.png VIDEO: Train collides with semi truck carrying lighter fluid

    A truck driver from Washington is fortunate to be alive after driving his semi onto a set of tracks near Somerset, Ky., and being struck by a locomotive, which ignited his load of charcoal lighter fluid.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • mama.jpg What we get wrong about millennials living at home

    If the media is to be believed, America is facing a major crisis. "Kids," some age 25, 26, or even 30 years old, are living out of their childhood bedrooms and basements at alarmingly high numbers. The hand-wringing overlooks one problem: It's all overblown.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 2.12.33 PM.png Gunshots narrowly miss TV reporter

    A reporter for a West Virginia television station narrowly escaped injury or worse Monday while covering a fatal weekend shooting in Beckley.

    July 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • 25 hidden secrets in "Weird Al's" "Word Crimes" video

    Yankovic's 14th album was released this week, and it warms my heart containers that he's kept up his geeky brand of humor for so long. While he has written so many incredible songs, none have spoken to my love of proper grammar.
    Until "Word Crimes."

    July 16, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks