Birds' V-Formation Explained

It's even more impressive than you probably imagined

By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff

Posted Jan 16, 2014 8:31 AM CST | Updated Jan 19, 2014 11:21 AM CST

(Newser) – OK, this is just cool: We all know birds fly in V-formations, but an in-depth study into the pattern using high-tech GPS sensors has found just how precise a science the flight model is. After tracking and monitoring a flock of northern bald ibises—rare birds raised in captivity that are taught to migrate—a research team found each bird stationed itself an average four feet behind the one in front of it, at an angle of about 45 degrees. Why? That's the precise position needed to catch the rising air from the bird's wings flapping up ahead. But researchers were "completely surprised" to find their timing is also incredibly precise, too: As USA Today explains, "a bird regulates its stroke so its own wingtips trace the same path in the sky as the bird in front," and adjusts that stroke instantly, as needed.

"What these birds are able to do is amazing," lead researcher Steven Portugal tells the BBC. "They're able to sense what's going on from the bird in front, where this good air is coming from and how to position themselves perfectly in it." And while USA Today notes the study doesn't directly show that the birds save energy by doing these things, an aerospace engineer not tied to the study says it's a fair assumption to make, and Portugal notes that the formation lets birds give "a bit of a free ride" to the bird behind it. And humans are taking note. Plenty of unmanned aerial vehicles are looking to copy the birds' natural pattern to save fuel, he added. (In less pleasant animal-related news: An investigation has found an Animal Planet show to be plagued with abuse.)

Northern bald ibises fly in formation.
Northern bald ibises fly in formation.   (AP Photo/Markus Uns?ld)
Northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) fly in formation next to a microlight aircraft.
Northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) fly in formation next to a microlight aircraft.   (AP Photo/Markus Uns?ld)
A northern bald ibis flies in Tuscany, Italy.
A northern bald ibis flies in Tuscany, Italy.   (AP Photo/Markus Uns?ld)
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