Why Do Birds Fly in a V Formation? [Is It Instinctive!?]

why do birds fly in a v formation

Undoubtedly, you’ve witnessed a flock of migratory birds as they traverse through the sky in a perfect V formation. But have you ever wondered – why do birds fly in a V formation?

There are actually a couple of reasons for this and we’ll discuss these in more detail.

Birds will fly in a V formation to fly economically, conserving energy by creating a slipstream, in which the birds behind the leaders can take advantage of. One side of the V formation is shorter than the other, this is down to the affect of crosswinds, making the shorter side a more difficult flight.

It Makes Flying Long Distances Easier

In a perfect V Formation, birds can sync their wing beats with those in front and therefore, take advantage of the slipstreams created by the leaders. This in fact, conserves the energy of the birds flying further down the V, so they don’t get tired when flying.

Birds will instinctively move around in the V until they find the perfect location that offers the least resistance. This is generally, slightly above the bird flying in front which results in a reduction in wind resistance.

This formation also allows the birds to glide more often which once again, reduces the energy that they expend on a long flight. As they fly, the air can flow over and around their wings which makes the flight easier for the birds flying behind the leaders.

Another benefit of flying in a V formation is that all the birds flying in the flock can easily keep track of each other. There’s also the belief that it makes communication easier within the flock.

why do birds fly in a v formation

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Why Does Flying In A V-Formation Make The Flight Easier?

Here’s a simple scientific explanation of why flight is easier behind the leaders.

  • As a bird flies, air passes over its wings.
  • This in turn, makes the air above the wing flow faster than the air below it.
  • This faster flowing air pushes down onto the air below it.
  • At the same time, the air behind the body of the bird is pushed up.
  • This creates a vortex of air which flows behind and beside the bird.
  • Hence, the air which moves up, creates a ‘lift’ for the bird flying behind.
  • This allows that particular bird to glide on the air stream, saving energy.

This use of air up drafts allows certain species of birds like snow geese, for example, to fly up to 600 miles nonstop in just one day.

Image Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25736049

Birds Can Do This Instinctively

In a scientific study conducted in 2014, scientists discovered that birds will instinctively learn how to adjust the flapping of their wings to accommodate the wake that the bird flying in front creates with its own flapping.

The scientists, headed by Steven Portugal, from the Royal Veterinary College in the UK, in collaboration with Johannes Fritz, from the Austrian Waldarapptem conservation organization, led a young flock of northern bald ibises on a flight from Austria to Italy.

The ibises had previously been trained to fly behind an ultralight aircraft and were fitted with small data-loggers. Surprisingly, the birds instinctively created the ideal flying formation behind the light plane. Plus, they adjusted their wing flaps to coincide with the birds directly in front.

In fact, it was discovered that the birds could instantly respond and adjust their position if the bird directly in front, changed its position or the flap of its wings.

Another interesting fact that this study uncovered was that the birds were learning how to fly in formation, on the fly. They were completely hand raised by humans and had no bird ‘parents’ to teach them.

As the study continued, the scientists discovered that the birds would just learn from each other to adjust their flight path so as to make their flight easier.

Flying In A V Formation Keeps Birds Healthier And Less Stressed

In another study, conducted by Henri Weimerskirch in 2001, it was discovered that birds flying at the back of the V recorded slower heart rates and had to flap their wings less often than the birds in front.

This study involved a flock of pelicans that were fitted with actual heart-rate monitors. This would indicate that there are definitely benefits to using the air draft created by the birds flying in front.

Birds Who Commonly Fly In This Formation

  • Pelicans
  • Storks
  • Geese
  • Ducks
  • Swans
  • Cormorants
  • Cranes

birds in v formation

Frequently Asked Questions:

How do birds decide who leads the V?

Actually, a flock of birds will share the lead of the V and rotate throughout the migratory flight. Therefore, as the leaders tire, they fall further back in the flock and the birds behind will take over.

This indicates that the lead would change quite often during a very long flight. It means that all the birds flying in the flock get a chance to glide easier at the back of the flock. It’s a truly wonderful example of co-operation in action.

Do ducks fly in formation like geese?

Yes, ducks commonly fly in V-formation when on their migratory journey.

What happens when a bird falls out of formation?

When a migratory bird falls out of the V formation, it will feel a certain amount of drag and resistance that makes flying more difficult. Hence, the bird will quickly fall back into formation to make its flight easier.

Final Thoughts

I hope you now understand why birds fly in a perfect V formation when they’re migrating across long distances. It makes their flight much easier, uses less energy and allows them to keep track of all the birds flying in the flock.

Have you witnessed a perfect V formation from birds migrating in your area? Be sure to share your experience in the comments below.

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