Birds fly in 'V' formation to save energy

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The next time you see birds flying in a V, consider this: A new study says they choreograph the flapping of their wings with exquisite precision to help them on their way.

That's what scientists concluded after tracking a group of large black birds — each equipped with a tiny GPS device — that had been trained to follow an ultra light aircraft. One expert in animal flight said just gathering the data, which included every wing flap, was a remarkable accomplishment.

Scientists have long theorized that many birds like these rare northern bald ibises adopt a V formation for aerodynamic reasons.

When a bird flies, it leaves a wake. The idea is that another bird can get a boost from an updraft of air in that wake by flying behind the first bird and off to the side. When a bunch of birds use this trick, they form a V.

It's been difficult to study this in the wild, but researchers from the University of London's Royal Veterinary College and elsewhere met that challenge by partnering with a conservation program that is trying to reintroduce the endangered wading bird in Europe.

For about a decade, the program has hand-reared ibises from zoos and taught them their migration route by leading the way with a piloted ultra light craft. Normally, the leader of a V-formation would be a parent bird.

(Nature 19 January 2014 / doi: 10.1038/ nature 12939). The study carried out with birds called ibises by researchers at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London in UK showed that these big-winged birds carefully position their wingtips and synchronize their flapping, “Presumably to catch the preceding bird’s updraft – and save energy during flight”. The V formation helps them fly more efficiently, staying aloft while expending as little energy as possible

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