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Precision Flight in Flocks: How Does It Work?

A sinuous mass of birds - how does it work?
© Alaska USFWS View Large

A flock of shorebirds flying wingtip to wingtip seems to act like a single organism, rolling and twisting in exquisite patterns. Flocks like these use a combination of two organizational patterns. One is a “cluster”: lots of birds flying together in a loose, three-dimensional cloud. The second is a basic V-formation, where smaller groups of birds within the flock sync up in V-shapes, like migrating geese. Voilà! Predator avoidance and aerodynamic efficiency.

Support for BirdNote comes from American Bird Conservancy and Bringing Back the Birds, a photo book by Owen Deutsch on the importance of protecting birdscapes. Available at amazon.com.

Full Transcript

Transcript: 

BirdNote®  

Precision Flight in Flocks: How Does It Work?

Written by Bob Sundstrom
 
This is BirdNote.
[Sound of massed flock of sandpipers: Dunlin ML 59435 recorded by WWH Gunn] 
One of nature’s enthralling spectacles is a flock of thousands of shorebirds flying wingtip to wingtip. The huge flock seems to act like a single organism, rolling and twisting in exquisite patterns.
[Sound of massed flock of sandpipers: Dunlin ML 59435 recorded by WWH Gunn] 
To better understand how these shorebird flocks operate, scientists analyzed videos of them in flight. Surprisingly, they found that flocks use a combination of two well-known organizational patterns. One is a “cluster”: lots of shorebirds flying together in a loose, three-dimensional cloud. It’s a marvel of precise action that allows the birds to confuse predators and to avoid colliding with one another.
[Short-billed Dowitcher flock calls, https://www.xeno-canto.org/257535, 0.15-.16]
The second kind of pattern is a basic V-formation, where smaller groups of birds within the flock sync up in V-shapes, like migrating geese. The V-formation has a different purpose -- to make flight more efficient, as birds in formation ride off the lift created by birds ahead of them.
The compound pattern combines the advantages of the cluster and the V-formation to improve both predator avoidance and aerodynamic efficiency.
Head to birdnote dot org to see videos of huge shorebird flocks in action.
I’m Mary McCann.
Support for BirdNote comes from American Bird Conservancy and Bringing Back the Birds, a photo book by Owen Deutsch on the importance of protecting birdscapes. Available at amazon dot com.

                                                             ###
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Sallie Bodie
Editor: Ashley Ahearn
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Producer: Mark Bramhill
Dunlin ML 59435 recorded by WWH Gunn  0:05 - 0:45, provided by the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Short-billed Dowitcher XC 257535 provided by Xeno-Canto, recorded by John V. Moore, :45 to end.
BirdNote’s theme was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
© 2020 BirdNote   June 2020    Narrator: Mary McCann
 
ID#  flight-14-2020-06-03  flight-14  
 
New research reference: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190604084848.htm

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