[Ed. – We can all sleep better tonight.]
Scientists have long puzzled over why birds form a V-shape when they fly together, but only now is an answer beginning to emerge. New findings published in the journal Nature solved the mystery.
A study conducted by the Royal Veterinary College and coordinated with the conservation project by the Waldarappteam in Austria involved training a flock of rare birds to migrate by following a microlight. The birds were fitted with data loggers to help track their flight and aerodynamics, giving scientists an inside look at how they fly, BBC News explains. They discovered that birds fly in the optimal position. They gain lift from the bird in the front by being close to its wingtip. The birds also timed their wingbeats.
A previous study of pelicans had pointed scientists in the right direction by revealing that when pelicans flew in formation, their heart rate dropped. Based on what scientists know now, this is likely due to the decreased effort that they must dedicate to flying if they are able to gain lift from the bird in front of them. Since the 1920s, scientists have assumed that the formation is to save energy, much like bicycle racers. This is the first real proof that the theory is accurate, NPR reports. Scientists have wanted to test the theory for some time, but they had to wait until technology had improved so that the trackers were lightweight enough to be carried on the birds’ backs. The devices that they eventually used contain both GPS and accelerometers, but unfortunately they were not able to wirelessly transmit data, meaning that scientists would have to remove the devices to be able to gather the data they needed. Hence the need for trained, as opposed to wild, birds.