Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Rufus the Hawk poses for a photograph at Wimbledon, where the skilled predator uses a "chase away" policy to keep pigeons off the famed tennis lawns.
Birds in flight often arrange themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions, according to a new paper in thejournal Nature
that helps to explain how birds fly in such impressive formations. Lead researcher Steven Portugal and his colleagues focused their study on northern bald ibises, but many bird species also exhibit the amazing flight behavior. Portugal, a University of London Royal Veterinary College researcher, told Discovery News that birds could be using three things to achieve their flying precision: "(1) vision – watching the bird in flight to get all the information they need, (2) feathers – sensing the changes in pressure, wind etc. through their flight feathers, and (3) positive feedback – i.e. they just fly around and when it feels easier/better they stay in that position."
The researchers determined that birds try to find "good air," meaning airflows (not just wind, but even the air created by other flapping wings) that minimize their energy expenditure and help them to get where they plan to go. Conversely, birds avoid regions of "bad air" that could work against them.
Many birds fly in distinctive V-formations. Portugal said, "The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wing path of nearby flock-mates. Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes (turbulent air) produced by flapping wings."
H.K. Job, Wikimedia Commons
Military planes sometimes fly in what is known as an "echelon formation," which mirrors nearly the exact same flight formation of many birds. This particular bird version is a variation of the "V," only with a rounded edge.
The U.S. Navy's famous flight demonstration squadron The Blue Angels often flies in a trademark "diamond formation" once popularized by fighter-bomber pilots. In it, the pilots maintain an 18-inch wing tip to canopy separation. Birds can fly even more tightly together.
The term "murmuration" refers to a flock of starlings. These birds can create dramatic patterns in the sky, such as this one over marshlands near Tønder, Denmark. Other small birds, such as sandpipers, may also create what look to be dazzling aerial ballets in the sky as they fly en masse.
Rupert Ganzer, Flicker
Even birds flying very close to land can do so in remarkable unison. Here, a formation was photographed as the birds flew over the beach at Camperduin in the Netherlands.
Daniel Jolivet, Flickr
The classic "V" formation has all sorts of variations. In this case, three separate -- yet united -- groups create an arrow-like effect in the sky.
Mark Kent, Flickr
Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film "The Birds" included many scenes where numerous birds blanketed the sky. Up close, these starlings look small and harmless but, as a huge murmuration, their power becomes evident.
From the earliest planes to those in design today, aircraft have been modeled after birds. It's no wonder. Every inch of this sleek northern bald ibis, snapped while flying over Tuscany, adds to the bird's flying prowess. Its 53-inch wingspan and powerful, synchronized wing beats must have captivated people in the ancient world too, since ancient Egyptians and other early cultures featured the birds prominently in their artwork and legends.
A hawk named Rufus whose sole job description reads "chase away pigeons" has made a name for himself with this year's Wimbledon Championship tennis tournament.
Rufus has become a star on television -- a Stella Artois commercial features his labors -- and his handler Imogen Davis recently participated in an "AMA" (Ask Me Anything) on the website Reddit.
Between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. each day during the tournament, Rufus, a Harris hawk, is set loose in the sky to cruise the stadiums. He keeps a sharp eye out for pigeons feasting on the famed Wimbledon lawns. He's welcome news to any tennis fan who has had to wait for a pigeon to shuffle off or be chased off the court so a crucial break point could be played between the two non-pigeons holding tennis rackets.
Importantly -- if you're a fan of pigeons, a pigeon yourself, or just someone who would rather not think about piegons in the clutches of hawks -- Rufus does not kill the puffy little pests. According to Davis, Rufus is kept at just the right weight to prevent that.
"We use Rufus as a non-lethal deterrent, so he flies when he’s not hungry enough to eat the pigeons, but not full enough to ignore them either," Davis told the UK Telegraph.
Rufus is six years old, and the savvy predator knows the Wimbledon grounds backward and forward. While the tournament is his primary gig, he flies the grounds year-round, just to keep the pigeons from getting any squatter's rights ideas while the tournament is not in session.
Rufus had a scare in 2012, when he was stolen from the Wimbledon grounds. He went missing for two and a half days before being anonymously returned by thieves, who must have realized, from the firestorm they'd ignited, that they'd be the most wanted people in England if they did not return the famous bird.
The idea to use a hawk to patrol the grounds isn't new. In fact Wimbledon officials have been employing one since 2000. It's just that earlier hawks did not find themselves on television and popular websites.