Freeloading: Secret of bird flight

Print Friendly
Freeloading: Secret of bird flight
Northern bald ibises fly alongside an ultralight “mother ship” that is teaching them to migrate across Europe.
Courtesy Waldrappteam

Bird flight is endlessly fascinating. How do they navigate? How do they get enough energy for long migrations? And why do so many birds fly in a vee-formation?

This week, we get confirmation that the vee formation eases flight because the birds can ride updrafts created in the vortex — whirling wind — behind the leading bird.

Are the birds solving complex equations of fluid dynamics in their bird brains? Not. Those brains, intimately attuned to flight, apparently recognize a good deal and adjust the position as necessary.

The critically endangered bird under study, the northern bald ibis, nests in colonies and eats small prey like lizards and insects. The wild population, in Morocco, is down to about 500.

diagram showing the number of flaps (colour coded) recorded in each 0.25x30.25m region
The synchronous wing beat in these northern bald ibises seems to reduce energy expenditure during migration.
Courtesy Nature1.

The new study piggy-backed on Waldrappteam, a European reintroduction project that is teaching new migration routes to ibises in Europe. The group’s follow-the-ultralight approach echoes a whooping crane migration project in North America.

The scientists strapped a 23-gram package that used GPS and a gyroscope to measure acceleration and location to 14 birds. Data from those instruments supported the study’s analysis of the spatial relationship between a bird and the one immediately ahead of it.

a group of ibis flying in a line
When the following ibises are located about 45° backward and to the side of the leaders, their wings are placed in a “sweet spot” formed by an updraft from the leading bird. The northern bald ibis once roamed across parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Credit: Markus Unsöld

Into the vortex

When bird flap their wings, they create a vortex, which resembles a micro-tornado flipped sideways. Although the position of the trailing bird varied from second to second, they did spend most of their time with their wings in the updraft of the vortex.

Although the researchers did not measure effort, the bird’s careful positioning is expected to ease flight, says article author James Usherwood. “They want their wing to be where the air is going up; they want to follow wherever the uplift is.” Usherwood studies animal biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom.

To the birds, the updraft provides free energy, much like the gift of a tailwind to a bike rider. And the updraft is not just important when the trailing bird’s wing is moving down in the power stroke, says Usherwood. “They probably benefit from wake support all through the flapping cycle.”

On the flip side, staying in the updraft helps the birds shun the downdraft section of the vortex.

Northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) fly in formation. Rollover to see the birds near the ultralight.
Credit: Markus Unsöld

Although a wake in air is invisible, it’s similar to the wake trailing a speedboat — a rotating disturbance with its long axis more or less parallel to the boat’s/bird’s direction of motion.

ibis flying in a V-formation
This vee formation, typical of many migrating birds, is thought to reduce energy consumption.
Credit: Markus Unsöld

What’s it worth?

It’s likely — but unproven — that the vee formation chosen by Canada geese and many other migrating birds is driven by the same hunt for the updraft, Usherwood says.

How much does riding the vortex help the trailing bird? We asked Usherwood to do some arm-waving, but he wisely retreated, telling us, “The energetic benefit is as yet undetermined.” Our understanding how much energy a flapping bird requires to fly “is very poor,” he continued. “We could pretend they are fixed-wing aircraft” and apply aerospace engineering calculations, but that’s a “very unhappy” solution.

In assessing the relative energy output, the angle of the formation matters, Usherwood says. “According to aerodynamic theory, it’s possible that the leader could be helped by the ones behind. In a shallow vee, it can spread the benefit across all of the birds, or benefit the lead bird.”

But how do the birds choose that aerodynamic sweet spot? The answer is, Usherwood, “As yet undetermined, but possibly more tractable.” People quickly adapt when asked to walk or run with a peculiar gait, he says. “That gives them an unnatural situation, but they can move something else to change their energetics.”

In other words, birds aren’t making intricate aerodynamic calculation on the fly, he says, “but it does not take much calculation to get to, ‘It’s a nice thing if [the leading bird] flaps and then I flap.'”

– David J. Tenenbaum

2 3 4 5

Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Yilang Peng, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Upwash exploitation and downwash avoidance by flap phasing in ibis formation flight, Steven J. Portugal et al, Nature 16 Jan. 2014
  2. Northern bald ibis
  3. Poachers gun down iconic ibis
  4. Why do migratory birds fly in a V-formation?
  5. Young whooping cranes begin fall migration