Bird migration in controlled V-formation starts a cooperation dilemma

Birds don’t just fly in a particular pattern without any rhyme or reason. Scientists across the world have been studying the flying patterns of birds, and noting the formations that they fly in – and the findings are interesting. They’ve found that birds who fly in a V-formation take turns leading the pack. It’s interesting because there has been a lot of debate around who leads, why they lead, and for how long they might lead. However, researchers from Oxford specifically pointed out that birds who migrate over a long distance, or fly in a V-formation take turns leading. The breakdown works out to be around 30% of the bird’s time being spent in the updraft, allowing birds to save energy.


The researchers used trackers to log the location and the travel time of the Northern bald ibis, which migrate from Austria to Italy, and travel nearly 930 miles. Bernhard Voelkl of the University of Oxford pointed out that this wasn’t the only finding of the study. He said “Mortality is really high – 30% of juveniles don’t survive the first migration.” The study though showed that the birds actually work in pairs, and regularly switch positions with birds that are next to them, in front of them, or behind them. Specifically, they’ll work with one bird for a long period of time, and ultimately the entire flock is kept organized through that type of swapping.

It’s kept simple, too, by using this pairing method. Then, the birds don’t actually watch the rest of the flock – they simply mock the behavior of the other bird that they are paired with within their flock. That’s something that the scientists said was difficult for birds. That’s why it’s so important for them to keep things broken into small chunks. If one bird falls out of place – the entire flock then realigns to maintain the regularity throughout the flock and to ensure that aerodynamics are preserved. Ultimately birds fly in the formations that they do to make travel easier, but also to make the trip happen quicker. Migration is key for birds to survive, and at the end of the day – it’s crucial for them to know that they will be able to make these exhausting trips every single year.