Home Uncategorized Birds take turns leading migratory V formations

Birds take turns leading migratory V formations

In the world of migratory birds, when it comes to heading up the flock
on a trip to new territory, leadership is a team game. One most important feature of several larger bird species is their annual migration in V-shaped or echelon formation.
A flock of lesser flamingos fly in formation. Photo by Nikunj vasoya/CC.
When birds
are flying in these formations, energy
savings can be achieved by using the aerodynamic up-wash produced by the
bird. As the leading bird in a formation
cannot profit from this up-wash, but the
question arises who
is going to fly in front? 
According to new research, birds take turns leading the V formations during migration seasons. Flying in formation helps minimize energy expenditures by allowing birds
to take advantage of updrafts created by the wings of the birds flying
ahead of them. 
Bernhard Voelkl, a researcher in Oxford
University’s Department of Zoology said, “Our study shows that the ‘building blocks’ of reciprocal cooperative
behavior can be very simple: ibis often travel in pairs, with one bird
leading and a ‘wingman’ benefiting by following in the leader’s
“We found that in these pairs individuals take turns, precisely
matching the amount of time they spend in the energy-sapping lead
position and the energy-saving following position,” Voelkly said.
Not every spot in a V formation is equally advantageous, so birds mix it
up — constantly switching places to ensure every member of the
formation gets an equal amount of aerodynamic assistance. As a result of
this socialized approach to migratory travel, each member of a flock
takes a turn at leading the formation.
To track the specific flying patterns of migrating ibis, researchers
outfitted more than a dozen ‘human-imprinted’ bird specimens with
tracking devices, and then led the birds on a migratory journey with a
hang glider carrying the birds’ handlers. 

Human-imprinted animals are those that are adopted by a human
leader at a young and impressionable stage. Human-imprinted geese have
been shown to follow their handlers in formations that mimic their wild

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“We found that larger formations of ibis were still made up of
these ‘turn-taking’ pairs,” Voelkl added. “The checking that went on
within these pairs was sufficient on its own to prevent any freeloaders
hitching a free ride within a V formation without leading. In fact,
surprisingly, we found no evidence of ‘cheating’ of any kind.” 

Previous research has shown that similar selfless cooperation
improves the chances of self-preservation in other species – like penguins that rotate their position in huddles and on the march to share the advantages of insulation and ensure everyone stays warm. 

The new ibis study was published online this week in the journal PNAS.


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