For all its chaos, nature is remarkably organized. Flowers bloom at the same time in spring, and all animals know their schedules for mating and weaning, among other things.
Another evidence of nature’s organization can be seen in the skies when swarms of birds fly in flocks or, even more impressive, birds fly in a V pattern.
But why do birds fly in a V formation? Is there any benefit to the arrangement, and who taught them to fly that way?
Read on to learn more!
Table of Contents
Reasons Why Birds Fly in a V Formation
Birds fly in all sorts of formations. Many birds fly in formation at dusk in circles called murmurations to exchange information and get warm before settling in for the night.
There is also a particular geese flying formation during migration: a big V shape in the sky. Many species like ibises or gulls also follow this pattern.
But why that letter? Scientists offer three possible reasons why birds fly in V shape.
First, flying in a V shape does make the activity more manageable. This is proven by the laws of aerodynamics or the study of how air responds when solid bodies move through it.
Second, ducks flying in V formation have a better line of sight of the horizon and each other.
Third, it’s also possible the birds may simply be following their leader.
Benefits of Flying in a V Formation
1. V formation makes flying easier
Why do birds flying in V formation have an easier time traveling? This has to do with airflow.
As the front bird flaps, it creates a little wave of air that the bird behind (and slightly to the sides) can just jump on and take advantage of.
However, if the second bird also flaps while riding the wave, they recharge it with energy. This then allows the bird behind them to ride it too, and so on.
This usually means that the bird in front has to work the hardest, but the birds at the back are almost on a “free ride” as they receive waves of air charged several times over.
This is why the V formation is a prevalent migratory birds flying formation.
As they travel long distances, birds regularly swap positions. Each takes their turn at the front, middle, and back.
This process allows them to have regular periods of “rest” and fly for longer distances without pausing their journey. Ultimately, birds in a formation can fly 70% farther than if they flew alone!
Studies have proven this to be accurate. In 2001, Henri Weimerskirch and his colleagues at the French National Center for Scientific Research found that birds in formations flap less and have lower heart rates than those that fly alone.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds, though: birds have to stay at precisely the right spot behind each other and flap at the right time to make the most of this hack!
Birds adjust their flapping rhythm based on their position along the V.
2. Better line of sight
The second widely accepted theory proposes that birds fly in a V formation to have a better line of sight of the horizon and each other.
Some even speculate it helps them communicate better with each other. It’s easier to speak with someone to your back and slightly to the side than directly behind you!
Many birds live in flocks for survival, so it’s reasonable to assume birds fly in flocks for safety, too. They keep each other secure from predators and act as each other’s support.
If a goose gets injured along the flight, two fall out of formation to stay with it as it recovers. Once the bird is ready to fly again, all three work together to catch up with the main group.
These geese flying in v-formation leadership stories is a prime example of teamwork.
How Do Birds Decide Who Leads the V?
The third theory states that birds simply follow the leader. But who is their leader?
Researchers have yet to pinpoint precisely how birds pick their leaders. There are no discernable physical criteria for leaders or flock hierarchy.
Instead, they all take turns and swap whenever the other gets tired. Interestingly, the swapping is a quick process, sometimes happening multiple times within a minute.
What Birds Fly in a V Formation?
Several birds fly in a V formation, the most common of them being
Frequently Asked Questions
How many birds make up a V formation?
Birds flying in formation called an echelon (linear lines usually in J or V shapes) usually number about 25 birds. However, that number can always be more or less.
How do birds learn to fly in a V formation?
Interestingly, birds that fly in V formation seem to do it instinctively!
Many studies have been conducted on birds raised by humans or birds taught to fly by aircraft pilots.
In all instances, the birds seemed to naturally move towards their V formations and begin matching each other’s flapping rhythm.
Why is one side of the V formation longer?
This question is often asked as the birds fly in a V joke, where the answer simply states, “because there are more geese on that side.”
But there is an actual reason why one side is sometimes longer.
Depending on wind directions, one side of the V typically gets more airlift than the other. Researchers have observed that this is the side often favored by geese and, therefore, is longer than the other.
Why do birds fly in a V formation? Researchers have given us their top three guesses and have backed them up with as much science as possible.
However, we may never know the real reasons. Unfortunately, birds can’t explain themselves, and researchers can’t track and measure them too closely because it would prove too invasive.
Whatever their true purpose, birds in a V formation in the sky paint a beautiful picture, inspiring many to attach the spiritual meaning of victory and freedom to it.
George and I became friends after a birdwatching trip with our new group. And we have been enjoying every adventure together. When he told me the idea of establishing a site that shares our experiences and fun, I immediately agreed. After trials and errors, here we have Thayerbirding.