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.
Many bird couples exemplify “till death do us part” by mating for life, and now a new study finds that these pairs will even sacrifice access to food in order to stay close to their loved ones over the winter months.
The determination shows just how valuable stable relationships can be, at least in the bird world.
“The choice to stay close to their partner over accessing food demonstrates how an individual bird’s decisions in the short term, which might appear sub-optimal, can actually be shaped around gaining the long-term benefits of maintaining their key relationships,” project leader Josh Firth of Oxford University said in a press release.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
Firth and his team focused on birds called great tits, but it’s suspected that the findings could apply to many species. Geese, swans, cranes and eagles, for example, are primarily monogamous. Lovebirds, which are actually a small species of parrot, mate for life as well, and spend many of their days affectionately doting on their mate.
In terms of great tit couples, an experiment demonstrated their loyalty.
The researchers placed automated bird feeding stations at Oxford University’s Wytham Woods site. The stations were set up such that the mechanisms could “decide” which individual birds could and could not access food, based on what particular radio frequency identification tag — worn by the birds — was detected.
The scientists rigged the feeders so that mated pairs of birds were unable to access the same feeding stations as each other, meaning the male could only access the feeding stations that the female could not, and vice versa.
They found that, more often than not, the birds elected to be with their mates rather than get the easy meal. As for humans, hanging around a loved one often involves dealing with their friends and relatives, too.
“Because these birds choose to stay with their partners, they also end up associating with their partners’ flock-mates, even if they wouldn’t usually associate with these individuals,” Firth said. “This shows how the company an individual bird keeps may depend on their partner’s preferences as well as their own.”
Another finding from the study is that the clever bird pairs figured out that the feeders remained unlocked for two seconds after recognizing an identification tag. Rather than go to a location where one, but not the other, could more easily obtain food, the two stayed together and worked out a system.
As one used its tag to unlock the feeding station, the other would hurry in to scrounge whatever food it could in the two seconds. The researchers refer to this as a “cooperative strategy,” suggesting that the birds probably join mental forces to solve countless other problems.