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Ellen Paul

The V-formation really does save energy for birds in flight

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With the help of 14 northern bald ibises fitted with lightweight sensors on a 600-mile migration from Austria to Tuscany, researchers are suggesting that the explanation is one that was long suspected but never proved: The formation helps the birds conserve energy.


Reporting in the journal Nature, the scientists write that the ibises positioned themselves in spots that were aerodynamically optimal — allowing them to take advantage of swirls of upward-moving air generated by the wings of the bird ahead.


An analysis of 24,000 flaps showed that the ibises on average adjusted their position and wing phase to optimize the lift from the vortices, and readjusted their phasing when they changed positions within the V. The new study does not say how much energy the ibises saved by these maneuvers, but small gains could be useful over long migrations, experts say.


Another open question is how the birds know to fly in these optimal spots. Dr. Usherwood said that they might have evolved “rules of thumb” for flying, or that “they have good sensors” and adjust to find spots that feel good. “Splitting apart those possibilities would be possible with cunning experiments we have planned,” he said.

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