It is very easy to pass off phenomena that occur to us every day and accept that they happen “just because”. Often, the most interesting mysteries lie within things that happen around us ordinarily.
Scientists from the Royal Veterinary College have solved the mystery as to why many birds fly in a V formation. So what is the secret to this universally recognised pattern?
The crux of the reason for the V formation has been discovered to lie in aerodynamics and in birds’ need to optimise their flight energy efficiency. Similar to what is experienced by cyclists and a Formula 1 car, the aerodynamic changes caused by the individual in front can be beneficial to those behind.
Unlike studies on vehicles, the scientists’ methodology did not involve placing a flock of birds into a wind tunnel. Instead, they worked with an Austrian conservation group, the Waldarappteam, who were attempting to reintroduce the Northern Bald Ibis to Europe.
The birds were “imprinted” onto – that is, raised by – human fosterers, tagged with data loggers and taught to follow a microlight, allowing the researchers to analyse the aerodynamic nature of migratory flight. The data loggers fed back information concerning the birds’ orientation within the group relative to one another.
The discovery, published in Nature, showed that the birds were specifically positioning themselves and timing wing beats to efficiently utilise and exploit the up-wash of air generated by the wingtips of the birds infront, decreasing the energy expense in long migratory flights and thus extending range.
This discovery may appear to be merely extending the general knowledge round of Mastermind, but the promise of such research could be far greater: it enhances our knowledge of the sensory capabilities of these bird species and their ability to coordinate with one another in their natural environment. Furthermore, it gives us a greater insight into habituation and imprinting behaviours within species, as well as a greater knowledge of aerodynamics which could be applied to our own technology.
There are promising advances to be made when people are willing to question everyday occurrences. Although it can seem that such developments are vitiated by larger research areas, the implications of such discoveries can be extremely significant.