CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Education

January 29, 2014

Why birds fly in a V formation

Anyone watching the autumn sky knows that migrating birds fly in a V formation, but scientists have long debated why. A new study of ibises finds that these big-winged birds carefully position their wingtips and sync their flapping, presumably to catch the preceding bird's updraft - and save energy during flight.

There are two reasons birds might fly in a V formation: It may make flight easier, or they're simply following the leader. Squadrons of planes can save fuel by flying in a V formation, and many scientists suspect that migrating birds do the same. Models that treated flapping birds like fixed-wing airplanes estimate that they save energy by drafting off each other, but currents created by airplanes are far more stable than the oscillating eddies coming off of a bird. "Air gets pretty darn wiggy behind a flapping wing," says James Usherwood, a locomotor biomechanist at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London in Hatfield, where the research took place.

The study, published online Wednesday in Nature, took advantage of an existing project to reintroduce endangered northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) to Europe. Scientists used a microlight plane to show hand-raised birds their ancestral migration route from Austria to Italy. A flock of 14 juveniles carried data loggers specially built by Usherwood and his lab. The device's GPS determined each bird's flight position to within 30 cm, and an accelerometer showed the timing of the wing flaps.

Just as aerodynamic estimates would predict, the birds positioned themselves to fly just behind and to the side of the bird in front, timing their wing beats to catch the uplifting eddies. When a bird flew directly behind another, the timing of the flapping reversed so that it could minimize the effects of the downdraft coming off the back of the bird's body. "We didn't think this was possible," Usherwood says, considering that the feat requires careful flight and incredible awareness of one's neighbors. "Perhaps these big V formation birds can be thought of quite like an airplane with wings that go up and down."

The findings likely apply to other long-winged birds, such as pelicans, storks, and geese, Usherwood says. Smaller birds create more complex wakes that would make drafting too difficult. The researchers did not attempt to calculate the bird's energy savings because the necessary physiological measurements would be too invasive for an endangered species. Previous studies estimate that birds can use 20 percent to 30 percent less energy while flying in a V.

"From a behavioral perspective it's really a breakthrough," says David Lentink, a mechanical engineer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the work. "Showing that birds care about syncing their wing beats is definitely an important insight that we didn't have before." To definitively say that the birds are drafting off each other, however, the exact location of the eddies and the areas of downdraft would need to be measured on ibises, which would require flying them in a wind tunnel - a far more intrusive process than simply carrying a data logger.

Scientists do not know how the birds find that aerodynamic sweet spot, but they suspect that the animals align themselves either by sight or by sensing air currents through their feathers. Alternatively, they may move around until they find the location with the least resistance. In future studies, the researchers will switch to more common birds, such as pigeons or geese. They plan to investigate how the animals decide who sets the course and the pace, and whether a mistake made by the leader can ripple through the rest of the flock to cause traffic jams.

"It's a pretty impressive piece of work as it is, but it does suggest that there's a lot more to learn," says Ty Hedrick, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies flight aerodynamics in birds and insects. However they do it, he says, "birds are awfully good hang-glider pilots."

 

1
Text Only
Education
  • WSCC patient care specialist BOOST program offers certification as Patient Care Specialist in one year

    Starting this fall, Wallace State Community College will offer a new health program aimed at helping individuals who are looking for entry into the medical field, or to change gears after spending time out of the workforce, whether from losing their jobs due to the economy, downsizing or other factors.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • WSCC HILL.jpg Hill hits the ground running at Wallace State

    Marcie Hill of Double Springs likes taking on new challenges. As an 18-year veteran of the education system, Hill has taught first grade, sixth grade and served as a reading coach to students and teachers in Kindergarten through sixth grade.

    July 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Barnes enjoy Samford's governor's school.jpg Area residents enjoy Samford’s Alabama Governor’s School

    Students from two area high schools were chosen to attend Alabama Governor’s School at Samford University June 15-27. They were among 91 outstanding rising high school seniors from 24 counties who were selected for the two-week honors program.
     

    July 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • University of Memphis Reduces Tuition for Out-of-State Students

    The Tennessee Board of Regents has approved a proposal that will significantly reduce the amount of tuition that out-of-state students pay to attend the University of Memphis.


    Under the new 250-R program, full-time undergraduates who graduated from a high school within 250 miles of Memphis will now pay $12,456 a year, an almost $10,000 reduction from last year’s amount of $21,768.

    June 20, 2014

  • WSCC students SkillsUSA comp 1.jpg Four Wallace State students set to compete this month at the 50th annual SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference

    Wallace State’s Technical Division has made it an annual tradition to send multiple students to the SkillsUSA national competition. This year is no different.

    June 11, 2014 3 Photos

  • Dickerson chosen Boys State.jpg Dickerson chosen to attend Boys State

    Davis Dickerson, a student at Good Hope High School, son of Bruce and Jennifer Dickerson, received the American Legion Boys’ State award for 2014 from American Legion Post 4 Adjutant Don Reid.

    June 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Southern Am. Legion Girls State.jpg Southern chosen for Girls State

    Miranda Southern, a student at Good Hope High School, daughter of Douglas Southern, received the American Legion Auxiliary 2014 Girls’ State award of $200 from American Legion Auxiliary Unit 4 Secretary-Treasurer Mary Reid.

    June 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cullman students earn Martin Methodist College honors

    Two residents of Cullman County received academic honors during the spring semester at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn.
    Brandie Overton and Darcie Wilson, both of Cullman, were named to the Dean’s List with a semester grade point average of 3.5 to 3.9.

    May 30, 2014

  • Crisologo earns degree.jpg Crisologo earns D.P.M. degree from Des Moines University

    Des Moines University granted 539 degrees at its 2014 Commencement Ceremony, the 114th in the university's history, on Saturday, May 24, at 10 a.m. at Hy-Vee Hall in the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. The dean from each of the three DMU colleges presented their classes and DMU President Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D., conferred degrees.

    May 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Moon graduates from Southeastern Bible College

    John Clint Moon of Empire was awarded an associate of arts degree in leadership ministries from Southeastern Bible College Friday, May 9, 2014.

    May 29, 2014