Birds flying in V formation time the beating of their wings with a degree of precision previously thought too complex to manage.
The carefully orchestrated patterns, observed for the first time in wild, migrating birds, are thought to reduce the birds’ energy costs.
Researchers Steven Portugal and James Usherwood, both of the the Royal Veterinary College in the UK, and colleagues monitored 14 northern bald ibises as they flew in a V formation, recording their position, speed, heading and every single wing flap.
The team used a paraglider to fly alongside the Ibises for 43 minutes
Birds often changed their position and altered the timing of their wing beats to give them the best aerodynamic advantage possible.
Those flying in V formation — behind and to the side of the bird in front — flapped their wings in phase, allowing the trailing bird to gain extra lift from the bird ahead.
Those flying directly behind the bird in front beat their wings out of phase, minimising the effects of detrimental downwash from the leader’s wings.
Those findings indicate that birds have a remarkable awareness of and ability to either sense or predict the patterns of air turbulence caused by nearby flock-mates.
The complex pattern had previously been suggested from theoretical models, but had not been recorded in free-flying birds.
The research was published in the journal Nature.
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