Birds flying in a V formation position themselves so as to capture as much updraft as possible while avoiding any downdraft, a new study published in the journal Nature determined.
The researchers planted small GPS devices on 14 ibises and recorded detailed information on the birds as they migrated, including speed and when each bird flapped its wings.
The results indicated that birds flying in formation not only position themselves so as to take full advantage of the updraft created by the bird ahead of them, but they flap their wings at just the right time so as maximize an updraft and minimize a downdraft.
"The distinctive [V formation] of bird flocks has long intrigued researchers and continues to attract both scientific and popular attention, however a definitive account of the aerodynamic implications of these formations has remained elusive until now," said Steven Portugal, a researcher from the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London.
"The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wingpath of nearby flock-mates," he added. "Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes produced by flapping wings."
Such precise planning, the researcher notes, was previously not believed to be possible for birds.
"Here we have shown that ibis flight in V formation does, on average, match predictions of fixed-wing aerodynamics, although of course the flock structure is highly dynamic."
Although not involved in the study, Kenny Bruer, a professor of engineering and ecology at Brown University, told USA Today the results "once again remind us that animals are much more complicated ... than we often give them credit for."
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