RVC Website: | Home | Courses | Higher Degrees | Research | Clinical Services | RVC Enterprise | About Us | Contacts | Search |

New research proves that birds in V formation arrange themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions

15 January 2014

  • Nature coverPrecision phasing of flapping wings maximises aerodynamic benefit for birds and their flock-mates
  • These accomplishments were not previously thought possible for birds

Groundbreaking Royal Veterinary College research, which appears on the front cover of the journal Nature, proves for the first time that birds flying in a distinctive V formation strategically position themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions, and experience positive aerodynamic interactions that maximise upwash (“good air”) capture.

The data, captured from free-flying migrating birds using specially developed GPS technology, reveals the mechanisms by which birds flying in V formation can both use areas of beneficial upwash while avoiding regions of detrimental downwash (“bad air”).

Ibises flying in formation
Ibises flying in formation (photo credit: Mark Unsöld)

This is achieved firstly through spatial phasing of wing beats when flying in a spanwise (‘V’) position, creating wing-tip path coherence between individuals to maximise upwash capture throughout the entire flap cycle.

Secondly, when flying in a streamwise (‘behind’) position, birds exhibit spatial anti-phasing of their wing beats, creating no wing-tip path coherence and avoiding regions of detrimental downwash. Such a mechanism would be available specifically to flapping formation flight.

These aerodynamic accomplishments were previously not thought possible for birds because of the complex flight dynamics and sensory feedback that would be required to perform such a feat.

Steven PortugalDr Steven Portugal, (right) Lead Researcher at the Royal Veterinary College and his colleagues studied a free-flying flock of northern bald ibises by following them in a microlight, using specially developed GPS biologging technology to measure the position, speed and heading of all birds in a V formation, and when each bird flapped its wings.

Dr Portugal, said: “The distinctive V-formation of bird flocks has long intrigued researchers and continues to attract both scientific and popular attention, however a definitive account of the aerodynamic implications of these formations has remained elusive until now.

“The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wingpath of nearby flock-mates. Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes produced by flapping wings.”

Theories of fixed-wing aerodynamics have predicted the exact spanwise positioning that birds should adopt in a V formation flock to maximise the gathering of upwash. However there has been a general lack of data from free-flying birds, because of difficulties in measuring the intricate complexity of formation flight, and the lack of appropriate devices to record such information. This means that the precise aerodynamic interactions that birds use have not been identified until now.

Data logger being attached to an ibis
Data logger being attached to one of the ibises

Dr Portugal and his team studied a free-flying flock of northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita), a critically endangered species. They equipped 14 juvenile birds with back-mounted synchronised GPS and inertial measurement devices, which were custom made within the Structure and Motion Laboratory, at the Royal Veterinary College. The team recorded the position and every wing flap of all individuals within the V during 43 min of migratory flight. The precision of these measurements allowed the relative positioning of individuals in a V to be tracked, and the potential aerodynamic interactions to be investigated at a level and complexity not previously feasible.

During a 7 min section of the flight, where most of the flock flew in approximate V formation in steady, level and planar direct flight, researchers found wing flaps occurred at an angle of, on average, 45° to the bird ahead (or behind), and approximately 1.2m behind.

Ibises flying behind microlight
Ibises flying in V formation behind the microlight (photo credit: Mark Unsöld)

Dr Portugal added: “Here we have shown that ibis flight in V formation does, on average, match predictions of fixed-wing aerodynamics, although of course the flock structure is highly dynamic.

“Birds flying in V formation flap with wingtip path coherence, meaning that their wingtips take the same path to maximise upwash capture. In contrast, birds flying in line flap in spatial antiphase, with wingtip paths maximally separated, to avoid adverse downwash.”

Read more about this research and the technologies behind it on the RVC's Structure & Motion Laboratory's Animal Behaviour Studies pages.

Notes for editors

  • Research Reference: Portugal, S.J., Hubel, T.Y., Fritz, J., Heese, S., Trobe, D., Voelkl, B., Hailes, S., Wilson, A.M. & Usherwood, J.R. (2014). Upwash exploitation and downwash avoidance by flap phasing in ibis formation flight.
    Nature 505, 399-402. doi:10.1038/nature12939
  • Funding was provided by grants from the EPSRC, BBSRC and a Wellcome Trust Fellowship
  • See Research News for more information about the latest research at the RVC
  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the England's largest and longest established veterinary school and is a constituent College of the University of London. The RVC offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in biological sciences, as well as veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing, and is ranked in the top 10 universities nationally for biosciences. It is the only veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC.
    A research-led institution, the RVC ranked as the top English veterinary school in the Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science unit of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise with 55% of academics producing 'world class' and 'internationally excellent' research.
    The College also provides support for the veterinary profession through its three referral hospitals, including the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals, Europe's largest small animal hospital, which sees more than 8,000 patients each year, and through an extensive CPD programme. www.rvc.ac.uk

Further Information

To request further information or an interview please contact:

The Royal Veterinary College

RVC crest

Established in 1791, the RVC is the UK’s longest-standing veterinary college—with a proud heritage of innovation in veterinary science, clinical practice and education.

Designed and developed by the RVC Electronic Media Unit