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The physics of why birds fly in V-formation

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Why do birds often fly in a V-shaped formation? Researchers at the UK’s Royal Veterinary College have gathered data from individual ibises in a migratory flock to study why this pattern is so popular: their relative position and wing flap timing gives them extra lift from the upward motion of air created by the bird ahead of them.

flying ibis

In 2011, as part of a reintroduction programme, captive-bred ibises following an ultralight aircraft to their wintering grounds arranged themselves in the shape of a V. Data loggers on their backs captured every position and wing flap, yielding the most compelling experimental evidence yet that birds exploit the aerodynamics of the familiar formation to conserve energy.

Above, this lovely Nature video tells the story behind the research: Come fly with me.

flying with the birds for science
You can read more about this upwash exploitation at Nature or The New York Times, or watch this summary video from NPR.

Related videos on TKSST include:
Take a ride on an eagle’s back
• TED Ed’s Bird Migration, A Perilous Journey
• Behind the scenes of the BBC’s phenomenal Earthflight

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