BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – This fall, local skywatchers may see migrating birds flying in a V formation and this might lead some to wonder why certain birds do this.
Typically, it’s the larger, migratory birds that follow this pattern, such as geese, swans, and ducks.
According to Science magazine, “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.”
When it comes to the theory that birds do this to make flight easier, experts suggest that flying in this pattern conserves energy because each bird is utilizing the slipstream created by the bird flying just ahead of them.
In this regard, a 2014 study revealed that the observed 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.”
This precise and finely-tuned process astonished researchers because what the birds were doing required keen attention to their personal flight and unwavering awareness of their neighbor’s movements.
One researcher told Science magazine, “We didn’t think this was possible. Perhaps these big V formation birds can be thought of quite like an airplane with wings that go up and down.”
Researchers suspect the animals align themselves either by sight, by sensing air currents through their feathers, or by moving around until they find the location with the least resistance.
Interestingly, a study mentioned in National Geographic also found that when birds fall into the V formation, they’re not continuously following a set ‘leader.’ Research indicated that the birds changed position as often as once a minute.
This benefits the birds because each position in the V shape involves expending a certain amount of energy, and some positions require the use of more energy than others. For example, the bird at the point of the V expends the most energy, and those in the rear positions use less.
By frequently shifting their roles, individuals of the flock expend a similar amount of energy.
Essentially, a number of experts agree that it appears certain birds instinctively fly in a V formation to conserve energy.
However, there are many questions that scientists still hope to answer when it comes to researching exactly how this instinct functions within the animals.