Updated 8:44 AM EDT, Wed, Aug 18, 2021

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Birds Take Turns Leading a V-Formation to Save Energy During Migration

Birds in V-formation

(Photo : Wordpress) Migratory birds often do V-formations since there's a high risk of dying from exhaustion during long flights.

Researchers have found out migrating birds in V-formation often experience stress, especially for the leader of the formation. As a result, all the birds apparently take turns being the leader.

Researchers from the Oxford University in England discovered that after leading the flock for some time, the bird leader saves its energy by transferring the job to the next bird and moves to the back of the formation to wait for its turn again. This marks the first conclusive evidence of turn taking reciprocal cooperative behavior in birds, said scientists.

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To study this event, researchers monitored a flock of juvenile Northern bald ibis when they migrated from Austria to Italy. To track the position of the individual birds within their V-formation, each bird carried a data logger device.

Some individual birds were observed to change position frequently among the flock as they divided their time leading the formation and utilizing the updraft from the flapping of other birds' wings to save an estimated 10 to 14 percent of their energy.

The building blocks of this reciprocal cooperative behavior lies in a simple concept, as the ibis often travel in pairs, one bird leads and the other becomes the wingman who takes advantage of the leader's updraft, according to lead author Bernhard Voelkl from Oxford's Department of Zoology.

These pairs apparently take turns and match the exact amount of time they spend in the leader position and the wingman position. This strategy enables the birds to be more efficient and save more energy.

Researchers believe this kind of behavior is often seen in pairs and also often occurs in large formations. Voekly said larger formations of ibises often cnsist of turn taking pairs to prevent any freeloaders who benefit the migration without doing the hard work of being a leader of the V-formation.

Birds often do large group migrations since lone flying poses dangerous risks. Previous studies show 35 percent of juvenile birds die from sheer exhaustion during their first migratory flights.

Voekl believes these extreme risks have driven the birds to adapt a special kind of cooperative behavior that enable them to save 10 percent energy, which can also determine life or death.

This study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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