JAN 21, 2014 12:00 AM PST

Understanding the Flight Formation of Birds

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
There are few things more graceful and impressive than watching a flock of geese in flight, with their classic "V" pattern of synchronized movements. People have observed this pattern for many years and wondered: What is it about this formation that makes it attractive for birds? Is the goal aerodynamic or biological? Many scientists have speculated on the reasoning, but lacked any data to verify their hypothesis.

A research team at London's Royal Veterinary College has discovered the aerodynamic reasoning for this pattern through extensive data collection during flight. Their work was published in the most recent edition of Nature.

The research team studied a flock of 14 northern bald ibises. Specialized GPS devices provided the researchers with detailed information on the bird's movements during flight-compiling location, speed, frequency of flapping of their wings, and direction-during a flight of 43 minutes in a nearly 45 degree angle V formation (relative to the bird flying at the point of the formation). Over 180,000 wing flaps worth of information was gathered and analyzed. What the research team discovered was that the spacing of the birds and the timing of the wing flaps were essential to maximize beneficial air currents, and make for more efficient flight.

This makes sense on a fundamental level-anyone who has driven their car behind an 18-wheel truck on a windy day can attest to the powerful aerodynamic forces. The backwash from the aerodynamics of the 18-wheeler is buffeting your car, and the effect is very dependent on your position. Race-car drivers have also understood this for years, positioning themselves precisely behind fellow racers to "draft" off of them and maximize the aerodynamic effect-and of course pilots must consider interfering wind patterns as they fly. On a different scale, the birds are essentially doing the same thing.

The birds phase their wing beats to create a coherent airflow path throughout the flock, gaining lift from the rising air (upwash) and bypassing the drag associated with sinking air (downwash). Their position is equally important to utilizing upwash and avoiding downwash. This is why the adjustments are always in unison-there's a cascading effect on lift relative to the lead bird, and to get the full benefits of the lifting air, it's important that the movements be as uniform as possible.

Without understanding the complex aerodynamics behind their movements and synchronization, the birds automatically adjust their flapping pattern and relative positions to take advantage of positive air currents in a way that would make the Blue Angels proud. This implies a level of sophistication that many scientists did not expect birds to possess.

There probably aren't any new aerodynamic principles to be uncovered here, but the coordination effort of the birds is worth further study. Even though the scales are significantly different, by connecting aerodynamic data with the flight pattern of birds, this type of research could lead to new developments in flight feedback systems, or new fuel efficiency protocols for flying machines.
About the Author
You May Also Like
OCT 09, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 09, 2019
How Astronomers Determine the Universe's Age
The universe is so old and so large that the Earth is but an insignificant speck of dust by comparison. Astronomers are always trying to make sense of the...
OCT 24, 2019
Chemistry & Physics
OCT 24, 2019
Record-making Nuclear Fusion Device to Rescue Dwindling Medical Isotope Supply
Neutron generators are a type of nuclear fusion device that can produce a stream of neutrons through merging hydrogen atoms. Because of the intri...
NOV 17, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 17, 2019
How Much Do You Know About Triton?
Far beyond the reach of the terrestrial and gas giant planets in our solar system exists an entirely different class of world known as ice giants. Uranus a...
NOV 22, 2019
Chemistry & Physics
NOV 22, 2019
Scientists Observed the Root Cause of Lithium Batteries Failures in Real Time
Lithium batteries have high energy storage capacity, but sometimes they have unexpected failures and can even cause a fire. A team of scientists at the Dep...
DEC 12, 2019
Chemistry & Physics
DEC 12, 2019
Self-learning, Light-responsive Robot Inspired by Pavlov's Dog
Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov famously trained the canines in his experiments to salivate in response to the sound of a metronome, which was a showcase...
FEB 17, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
FEB 17, 2020
Graphene, the Toughest 2-D Material
An allotrope of carbon, graphene is a two-dimensional (2D) sheet of a nearly endless hexagonal network. In many of the studies conducted on this Nobel-winn...
Loading Comments...