Bird Watcher's General Store

Why A "V" ? - 02/23/07

Dear Bird Folks,

I've been hesitant to write in a question because I didn't want to be teased, but this question has been bugging me. Why do geese fly in a stereotypical V-formation? I've searched your website for the answer to this question but, oddly enough, no one has ever asked it. I have a feeling that I'm the only one who doesn't know the answer.

- Gordon, Bolder, CO

Relax Gordon,

You don't have to worry about asking me a question. Why geese fly in a V-formation is a rather obvious question that should be asked. There's no reason to be embarrassed. It's not like you are asking about geese flying in a VD-formation or something like that. And if it does weird you out too much then don't use your real name. Make up a fake one. Okay... Tony? Now that you mention it, it is odd that we haven't been asked this question until now. Canada Geese, in their iconic V formation, is an image that even non-birders are familiar with. For centuries people have looked into the fall sky and marveled at the long Vs of geese winging their way overhead. Historical records tell us that before geese flew in a V, they used to fly in an "R" shape, but the dyslexic birds had too much trouble with it, so the much easier V was put into use. Later on, it turns out, the geese sold the rights to the R to the guy who started Toys _ Us, who apparently also had problems with dyslexia.

You are not alone with this question, Tony (wink, wink); scientists have studied this subject for years. One thought is that the geese fly in a V for energy conservation. Here's how it works. As the lead bird pushes down with its wings, the displaced air creates an upward column of air for the trailing bird to ride on. To illustrate this point, the next time you are in the bathtub, slap the water downward and notice how the surrounding water splashes up. I'm not sure if splashing in the bathtub is how the scientists figured out this problem and actually it's an image I'd rather not think about.

Now you are thinking, "Okay, fine. Following behind a bird is helpful, but why the V shape? Wouldn't following directly behind the lead bird, making a straight line, offer greater benefits?" Nope, it wouldn't. The upwash is caused by the birds' wing tips. Flying just off-center, to either the left or the right of the bird in front, has the greatest rewards. Also, if you've ever seen what comes out of the back end of a goose, it's pretty obvious why even geese don't want to line up directly behind one another.

It is estimated that a goose in a flock uses up to 70 percent less energy than a single goose uses flying alone. The next question should be: Who's the poor sap that is stuck in the front, while all the other birds coast along behind? Well, if you have ever seen a flock of geese feeding (a few birds watch for danger, while the rest eat), you'd realize that Canada Geese are more organized than the Teamsters. The lead bird can only carry the load for so long; eventually it needs to take a break. When it has had enough, it simply drops back into the pack and another goose moves into the lead. Recently researchers have fitted a flock of trained pelicans with heart monitors. The study showed that the lead bird had a much higher heart rate than the rest of the flock, but when the lead bird dropped back into the pack, its heart rate also dropped. Also, they noticed that the trailing birds were able to glide more often than the lead bird, thus allowing them to rest more. Interestingly enough the monitors also told the researchers that the 100% fish diet was indeed good for the pelican's heart, but the bird's breath needed a lot of work.

The last question that should be asked, Gordon, ah, I mean Tony, is, If flying in a formation is so important, why don't we see all migrating birds flying that way? You would think that other birds, especially the little songbirds, could use all the help that they could get. Well, yes, songbirds can use the help, but their small wings don't create enough of an uplift to do trailing birds much good. Even if they were to fly in the V-formation, they would not gain any significant benefits. It's odd that the big, powerful geese need each other's help to migrate, while the tiny songbirds are on their own.

I think if the songbirds were smart they would sneak inside the pouch of a migrating pelican. That way they would not only get a free ride, but they would be protected from any inclement weather that may occur on the trip. Stealing a ride inside the pelican's pouch would be a perfect solution for the migrating songbirds, as long as their supply of breath mints held up.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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