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.
In the popular YouTube genre of strapping GoPro cameras to animals, some videos soar more than others. For example, the viral footage of the bald eagle flying high above the mountains of Chamonix, France comes to mind.
Well, ladies and gentleman, add another one to this genre’s hall of fame. In fact, I think this great white pelican with a GoPro strapped to its beak may have just knocked the eagle off its perch.
After the pelican -- nicknamed “Big Bird” -- swam ashore after a big storm, the fine folks at Greystoke Mahale, a resort in Tanzania on Lake Tanganyika, adopted the bird. It was apparently injured and orphaned and needed to relearn how to fly. Volunteers reminded the pelican how to use its wings by running along the shore and flapping their arms.
Of course, a GoPro was on hand to give free advertising and capture the uplifting moment when Big Bird took flight, giving us a beak’s-eye view as the pelican skimmed the shore’s shallow waters and swooped back around to the beach.
However, one local — a furry, green grump who lives in a trash can — didn’t think so highly of Big Bird. The indistinguishable being, known on his street as “Oscar the Grouch,” was reportedly not impressed.