Why birds fly in V formation
Birds migrating in V formation
One of the joys of the changing seasons is seeing migratory birds make their journey in the impressive V formation. Larger birds, like geese, pelicans, swans and cranes head south for the winter and in spring, head back north to their breeding grounds. Most birds that fly in V formation have a long journey and fly at extreme altitudes. I, for one, have always been mystified and fascinated by this aerial spectacle of nature. Why and how do they do it?
Did you know....
A group of geese on the ground is called a gaggle. A flock of geese in V formation is called a wedge or a skein.
Every formation has a lead bird out front who leads and sets the pace for the others. The first bird has to work the hardest since it flies through undisturbed air. When the lead bird tires, it will move out of the lead position and fall back into one of the lines of the V. Another bird will rapidly move forward to take the lead position to maintain the V formation. The two birds at the end of the V tire more rapidly and rotate frequently with the rest of the flock. The birds in the middle of the formation get the most benefit.
The lead bird breaks up the wall of air that the flocks flies into and experiences the most air drag or air resistance. The resulting swirling air or eddies caused by the lead bird's movements creates a lift or upwash for the birds behind it and so forth. The tubes of circulating air called wingtip vortices are generated as the wings generate lift. One wingtip vortex trails behind the tip of each wing. Each bird positions itself in a staggered position to the bird in front of it to get the extra lift and reduced air resistance or drag. A bird flying in formation therefore expends less energy than when it is flying solo. Another reason for flying in the V formation is that each bird can observe the position and flight direction of the other birds in the flock to avoid collisions, as well as, to keep the flock together.
Advantages of flying in V formation
It is more aerodynamic and more energy efficient than flying solo.
It allows for better visual communication.
Illustration of wingtip vortices - A picture says a thousand words.
This illustration shows how wingtip vortices are generated at the tip of the bird's wings. Air moves from the area of high pressure (under the wing) to the area of low pressure (top of the wing) at the tip of the wing. As the wings move through the air, this curling action causes spirals or vortices at the tips of the wings. The rising air or updraft of the vortices shedding off the bird in front will lift up the bird trailing behind it.
Migratory birds take advantage of each other's wingtip vortices by flying in a V formation so all but the leader are flying in the upwash from the wing of the bird ahead. A little upwash makes it a little easier for the bird to support its own weight. It also lowers the heart beats, increases the flying range, and conserves up to 50-70% more energy.
Producing thrust and reducing drag
In most bird species, there are 10 primary feathers along the outer edge of each wing. The primaries propel the bird through the air.
When a Canada goose flaps its wings during flight, several things happen. During the downstroke (power stroke), a wing moves downward and forward producing forward thrust. During the upstroke (recovery stroke), the tips of the primaries separate and these 'slots' allow passage of air through them which reduces friction or drag as the wing comes up.
When a goose is hurt or shot and falls out of formation, two of the geese will leave the flock and follow the injured geese, stay with it, nurture it until it recovers. Or in the case that the injured bird dies, the two geese will start a new formation and catch up with the flock.
Snow geese (Anser caerulescens)
Almost perfect symmetry
Snow Geese breed in the Arctic Tundra and winter in farmlands, lakes and coastal areas in the American south, southwest and east coast. These attractive geese occur only in North America, and make an annual round trip journey of more than 5,000 miles at speeds of 50 mph or more. Seen in flight, adults are white with jet black wing tips. When migrating, they follow well-defined geographical features like coastlines, rivers and mountain ranges.There are four primary corridors in North America. From east to west, they are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways.
In Asia, Bar-headed Geese (Anser indicus) regularly migrate over the Himalayan Mountains, even over Mt. Everest at an altitude of 30,750 feet (9375 m) where the air is thin and the temperatures drop to minus 60 degrees F.
Snow Geese Migrating in V formation - Teamwork at its best
These migrating snow geese are taking advantage of the aerodynamic V formation. This is one of my favorite air shows choreographed by nature. Not only is this so beautiful to behold, but it proves how natural instinct, teamwork and trust play a big part in the lives of migrating birds during their long journey to their destination.
During migration the Snow Goose flies so high it can barely be seen. They form shifting curved lines and arcs as they fly. Hunters call these birds "Wavies." The name is derived from the Chippewa name for this bird, wewe. During the summer, their heads are often stained red as a result of gathering in mud containing iron oxides.
"Winged Migration" video clip - Sit back and watch in awe.
"For eighty million years, birds have ruled the skies, seas and earth. They fly vast distances. Each Fall, they fly the same route back. This film is the result of four years following their amazing odysseys, in the northern hemisphere and then the south, species by species. Jacques Perrin from "Winged Migration" is one of the most respected producers in France. This film is about exploring the mystery of birds. More than 450 people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers were involved in the making of this documentary."
Barnacle geese migrate to Britain and Ireland in the winter, to escape the harsher climates of Greenland and Svalbard Island. The sudden appearance of the adult geese, with no prior sign of nesting or goslings, gave rise in folklore to the story that barnacle geese either grew on trees or developed from the goose barnacles found on driftwood.
Ducks flying with lead bird - Lead bird is also called the point bird
Ducks and geese fly long distances to find the resources they need to survive and reproduce. The prompt for fall migration is not as clear but is most likely related to the timing of reproductive events and molting. Migratory departures are triggered by short-term changes in weather and habitat conditions.
Pelicans in V formation
The pelican is known, above all, for its incredible beak, equipped with an enormous elastic pouch, which it uses as a net to capture and transport its prey. With a capacity of 13 litres, it can hold up to 4kg of fish. Certain species have a wingspan of 3.5 m and weigh up to 13 kg.
Pelicans are excellent gliding and soaring birds and can cover long distances. They flap their wings very little and make good use of rising currents of air. They can fly up to 24 hours without stopping and cover 500 km in a day. The highest flying speed recorded is 56 km/h.
Who does not love pelicans - They are cute, comical and make you smile.
Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) - Known for excellent fishing skills
Cormorants are members of the pelican family, with all four toes on each foot webbed, which helps them in swimming and chasing fish underwater.
Cormorants are strong fliers, flying rather like a goose, with neck stretched out, head held up and rapid wing beats. They can soar in air currents, but usually fly low over the water. The birds fly day or night, usually in V-shaped flocks numbering 200 or fewer birds, but flocks can number over 1000.
In the Far East, some fishermen make use of the cormorant's expertise, by training it to catch fish for them. A collar and lead is attached to the bird's neck and the collar is just tight enough to prevent the cormorant from swallowing a captured fish. The fisherman retrieves the fish from the bird's beak, only loosening its collar now and then to allow it to swallow a fish.
Watch cormorants helping a fisherman catch fish.
Interesting links about cormorants
- Cormorant family Phalacrocoracidae
36 species worldwide Cormorants are a fairly large family of fisheaters residing along freshwater and saltwater shores around the world.
- Double-Crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus)
Timing and Routes of Migration and migratory behavior
- Habitat, diet, nesting, conservation status.
Description of birds found in Washington state. When and where to find in Washington.
Canada Goose not Canadian Goose
The Canada goose is one of the best known birds in North America and can be found in every contiguous state and Canadian province at one time of the year or another. When the birds do migrate, they form impressive and aerodynamic "V-formations." They can cover 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) in just 24 hours with a favorable wind, but typically travel at a much more leisurely rate. These noisy groups honk their way along established paths that include designated "rest stops." These social birds remain in flocks year-round, except while nesting.
The Canada Geese Air Show - Amazing!
Watch how wingtip vortices at the wingtips of each Canada goose benefit the one next to it. Even when the V formation changes shape, the geese continue to maintain the staggered position relative to each other. Every one gets that extra lift to save energy from wingtip vortices. This is the power of teamwork at its best.
Keep you eyes on the lead bird who works the hardest because it flies through undisturbed air.
Fun Canada goose-themed products for everyone - Realistic decoys, stuffed toys, or 1000-piece puzzle
Watch how the geese fall in line - There is nothing silly about the goose.
Sandhill Cranes ( Grus canadensis)
Sandhill cranes heading south for the winter for a warmer climate.
Cranes are recognizable by their long necks and legs. They also are characterized by their noisy courtship "dances." Unlike herons, cranes fly with necks outstretched, not pulled back.
There are six recognized subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. Of these, half are migratory. The migratory cranes travel long distances, using routes learned from adults. During this migration they congregate at major stopover spots.
Sandhill Cranes in V Formation - Every bird knows its place
With over 500,000 birds, the Sandhill Crane is the most abundant crane worldwide. Yet it is an endangered species in Washington.
Cranes are extremely wary, requiring isolated sites with good cover during the nesting period. When repeatedly disturbed by pedestrians, construction, low-flying aircraft, vehicles, or predators, they desert their nests. For Sandhill Cranes to survive in Washington, breeding, migration, and wintering habitats all need to be protected and enhanced. It is crucial that the loss and degradation of wetlands in Sandhill Crane nesting habitat is stopped, and in some cases, creation of additional habitat should be considered. Wetlands within two miles of agricultural areas providing grain are ideal roosting areas.
Amazing Sandhill Crane migration - Stop over on the Platte river in Nebraska
Sandhill crane flock flying
The sandhill cranes took to the sky and some fell out of formation and got back in line, each one taking advantage of the upwash generated by the bird in front of it for the extra lift.
Swans migrating video - Here we go!
Why is one side of the V formation longer than the other? - Like a check mark
When a V formation looks more like a check mark, with one longer side than the other, it usually means a crosswind is blowing. The short side of the wind is taking the brunt of the wind, while on the long side, the birds are attempting to shield one another from it.
Any air plane flying through the air has to produce a lifting force to sustain its flight. The penalty for producing this lift comes in the form of induced drag. This induced drag can be reduced if the span of the wing is increased and it can further be reduced if the wings are swept back like those of fighter air planes. thus when the geese fly in the 'V' formation in close proximity it gives an effect similar to a huge air plane with swept back wings. Thus, the overall induced drag of the formation is much lower than the sum of induced drags of all the individual birds. Hence less effort to fly overall. Now when the winds blow across the formation the beneficial effects of reduced induced drag get offset towards the leeward side of the formation. therefore, to balance out the lift generation of both the arms, the windward arm is made longer.
Source: Basics of Aerodynamics
Birds flying in V formation - Wonder of Nature
Micmicking Mother Nature - Nature got there first
"Although manned aircraft can also exploit the benefits of formation flight, it is difficult to do so since we still lag behind nature in the ability of our technology to "feel" the air and adapt to it for optimum performance. Close formation flight among a group of aircraft is often difficult to maintain because of the turbulence created by the lead aircraft. Perhaps one day we will be able to develop advanced technologies that make aircraft as sensitive to their surroundings as the body of a bird is today. We may then be able to make better use of formation flight to improve the efficiency of flying vehicles."
Fascinating books on bird migration for all ages
Interesting links for the bird watchers
- Why Do Birds Fly in a V-formation?
Free Science Fair Project Ideas, Answers, & Tools for Serious Students
- Why do birds circle in the same place over and over again?
Ask a question about aircraft design and technology, space travel, aerodynamics, aviation history, astronomy, or other subjects related to aerospace engineering.
Lessons from the Geese
What mankind can learn from the geese.
'Individual empowerment results from quality honking'
Lessons from Geese provides a perfect example of the importance of team work and how it can have a profound and powerful effect on any form of personal or business endeavour. When we use these five principles in our personal and business life it will help us to foster and encourage a level of passion and energy in ourselves, as well as those who are our friends, associates or team members.
It is essential to remember that teamwork happens inside and outside of business life when it is continually nurtured and encouraged.
Lesson 1 - The Importance of Achieving Goals
As each goose flaps its wings it creates an UPLIFT for the birds that follow. By flying in a 'V' formation the whole flock adds 71 percent extra to the flying range.
When we have a sense of community and focus, we create trust and can help each other to achieve our goals.
Lesson 2 - The Importance of Team Work
When a goose falls out of formation it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back to take advantage of the lifting power of the birds in front.
If we had as much sense as geese we would stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.
Lesson 3 - The Importance of Sharing
When a goose tires of flying up front it drops back into formation and another goose flies to the point position.
It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks. We should respect and protect each other's unique arrangement of skills, capabilities, talents and resources.
Lesson 4 - The Importance of Empathy and Understanding
When a goose gets sick, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to the ground to help and protect it.
If we have as much sense as geese we will stand by each other in difficult times, as well as when we are strong.
Lesson 5 - The Importance of Encouragement
Geese flying in formation 'HONK' to encourage those up front to keep up with their speed.
We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups and teams where there is encouragement, production is much greater. 'Individual empowerment results from quality honking'