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Why Birds Fly In "V" Formation

By James Donahue

In my native state of Michigan the sight and sounds of the Canadian Geese in flight during their natural migrations are sure harbingers of both spring and winter. These large birds, sometimes flying low over our community, looking for a place to rest and eat, were always honking and squawking as if in constant communication with one another, and always following a leader in near perfect "V" formation.

That geese flew in formation was always known, although nobody in our town knew why. It was a mystery of nature that we seemed to take for granted. There was always a theory that the birds somehow found easier flying by staying in the "slipstream" of the bird ahead, but it was never proved.

The Canadian Geese are not the only birds that fly in formation during the long migrations. For us, they were noticeable because of their large size and the noise they made.

A recent story by BBC News writer Helen Briggs noted that a French research team, studying the flight of great white pelicans, especially trained to fly behind an aircraft for a film, may have confirmed our suspicions.

Scientists from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Villiers en Bois, France, taped heart monitors to the birds' backs.

Briggs wrote that the researchers found that when the pelicans flew in formation, their heart rates were lower than when they were flying solo. The birds also spent more time gliding.

"They fly in formation to save energy," team leader Henri Weimerskirch said. "It's not because they are using the upward air-stream of their neighbor, it is because they are able to glide more often."

The study determined that the energy saved by flying in formation may be crucial for larger birds on long flight. The birds not only fly in squadron formation, they also flap in time with their leader.

Dr. Weimerskirch said the aerodynamic benefit of formation flying has been suspected, but before the study, were based only on aerodynamic models.

The report, published in the journal Nature, suggests that formation flight was part of the evolution of birds. Not only does pattern-flying help the birds fly farther, it allows them to communicate with each other on the wing, the story said.

Thus part of the great migratory mystery of the birds may be somewhat solved for some scientists. But the study fails to explain the amazing ability of the birds to successfully navigate for thousands of miles, and know just when the time is right to do so.

Anyone who has studied birds knows there is something very special about these creatures. Their quick movements, their ever-watchful eyes, their intricate social behaviors are always an amazing thing to watch. For many birds, their songs involved with mating, sounding an alarm, or just welcoming each day are beautiful to hear.

The birds are among the Earth's oldest residents. They are, in effect, dinosaurs that survived the destruction of their larger counterparts. Sadly these magnificent creatures probably will not survive the ravages of the planet by human greed and incompetence. They are dying in large numbers, their latest killer, the West Nile Virus.