The Science Behind How Birds Fly

By on January 19, 2014

Most people have known since childhood that birds fly in V formations. For a long time this formation was attributed to energy conservation. Birds at the front have to do more work than the birds at the back. Eventually, the birds at the front and the back will switch places, taking turns working and resting. This still remains true, but new scientific information reveals that this  process is more complex than anyone realized.

Steven Portugal, an ecophysiologist at the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK, is the leader of an international team that has discovered more about the secret behind the V formation. Portugal worked with Johannes Fritz, who has been trying to reintroduce rare Northern Bald Ibises to the wild. These birds were hatched at Zoo Vienna in Austria and imprinted on humans.

“Imprinted” is a zoologist term for the process of teaching animals to recognize other animals or even humans or things as their parents. In this experiment, the captive birds were taught necessary survival skills by their human trainers.

Portugal stepped in on Fritz’s next step: teaching the birds the flight plan from Austria to Italy that they would follow in the wild. The team put tiny data loggers on the birds that tracked the birds’ positions and flapping patterns. Then the birds followed an ultralight aircraft from Austria to Italy.

The data showed that Ibises, and likely other birds, time their wing flaps so that they are as efficient as possible.

When birds flap their wings, they create a vortex, which pushes air up and down. The upward push is called “upwash” and the downward push is called “downwash.” In order to fly efficiently, the birds should flap down through the upwash, and avoid the downwash.

The data collected by the data loggers showed that the Ibises did, in fact, follow this pattern. Furthermore, the Ibises were also able to change their flapping patterns based on whether they were flying in a V formation or single-file.

According to an aerodynamic theory, the V formation could only save energy if birds flapped their wings with a precision that scientists doubted was possible.

The data from the data loggers showed that the Ibises were, in fact, just that precise. As birds fly, the vortices they produce move up and down, so the trailing birds must move up and down and flap their wings at exactly the right place and time. The right place and time changes depending on the distance between the birds.

As a result, when birds fly in V formations, they are constantly making minute changes that enable all of them as a group to save as much energy as possible.

While the exact mechanisms that allow birds to fly so precisely are still a mystery, scientists have helped uncover more information about this natural phenomenon that mystifies and entrances people of all ages.

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