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Scientists may have solved the mystery of why so many birds fly in a V formation.

Scientists from the Royal Veterinary College fitted data loggers to a flock of rare birds that were being trained to migrate by following a microlight.

This revealed that the birds flew in the optimal position – gaining lift from the bird in front by remaining close to its wingtip.

The study, published in the journal Nature, also showed that the birds timed their wing beats.

A previous experiment in pelicans was the first real clue to the energy-saving purpose of V formations. It revealed that birds’ heart rates went down when they were flying together in V.

But this latest study tracked and monitored the flight of every bird in the flock – recording its position, speed and heading as well as every wing flap.

This was possible thanks to a unique conservation project by the Waldarappteam in Austria, which has raised flocks of northern bald ibises and trained them to migrate behind a microlight.

The aim of this unusual project is to bring the northern bald ibis back to Europe; the birds were wiped out by hunting, so the team is retraining the birds to navigate a migration route that has now been lost.

Fitting tiny data loggers to these critically endangered ibises showed that the birds often changed position and altered the timing of their wing beats to give them an aerodynamic advantage.

Scientists may have solved the mystery of why so many birds fly in a V formation

Scientists may have solved the mystery of why so many birds fly in a V formation

Lead researcher Dr. Steven Portugal explained: “They’re seemingly very aware of where the other birds are in the flock and they put themselves in the best possible position.”

This makes the most of upward-moving air generated by the bird in front.

This so-called “upwash” is created as a bird flies forward; whether it is gliding or flapping, it pushes air downward beneath its wings.

“Downwash is bad,” explained Dr. Steven Portugal.

“Birds don’t want to be in another bird’s downwash as it’s pushing them down.”

But as the air squeezes around the outside of the wings, it creates upwash at the wingtips.

“This can give a bit of a free ride for the bird that’s following,” said Dr. Steven Portugal.

“So the other bird wants to put its own wingtip in the upwash from the bird in front.”

The other really surprising result, the researchers said, was that the birds also “timed their wing beats perfectly to match the good air off the bird in front”.

“Each bird [kept] its wingtip in the upwash throughout the flap cycle,” Dr. Steven Portugal explained.

Just as the birds save energy by gaining lift from other birds, many companies that are developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are looking to copy the energy-efficient V formation.

“Elucidating this mechanism might go some way to helping [companies] understand how they can replicate that with their plane formation to save fuel,” said Dr. Steven Portugal.

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Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on stretches of the Thames in the UK’s counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.

This year’s Swan Upping kicked off on Monday, July 15, and will continue until Friday, July 19.


1. This historic ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. The Queen of England generally just keeps tabs on the ones living on the River Thames and surrounding areas though. Mute swans have white feathers and are known for being less vocal.

2. Until recently, the “Seigneur of the Swans” (the Queen) was the only person who could kill and eat swans. Now, nobody can do either. But as recently as a decade or so ago, killing a swan was an act of treason that could technically be punishable by death or imprisonment.

3. Swan Upping is a swan census, basically. During the celebration, all of the Queen’s swans along the River Thames are rounded up, caught, tagged and measured and then released back into the wild.

Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on stretches of the Thames

Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on stretches of the Thames

4. The focus of Swan Upping these days is on the cygnets. Not just because they’re super cute either, but in order to track breeding trends of the mute swans.

5. It takes place annually during the third week of July in areas like Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, among others.

6. The Queen’s Swan Marker leads the Swan Upping. The current Swan Marker is named Swan Marker David Barber, a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. One of the biggest threats to swans these days is the increasing numbers of dog attacks. “When we have dog attacks it’s through carelessness,” said David Barber. “We are trying to stamp it out.”

7. The other swan counters (called “Swan Uppers”) wear traditional scarlet uniforms. And six traditional Thames rowing skiffs are used for the Upping, each adorned with flags and pennants.

8. Swan Uppers cry “All up!” when they spot a group of swans. The Uppers target cygnets and when they spot them, this call indicates that they need to get into position to grab and tag.

9. As they pass Windsor Castle, the Swan Uppers toast to the Queen. Queen Elizabeth is rarely ever present at the event (she’s attended once), so the rowers must stand at attention and hail Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans as they pass Windsor, one of the queen’s pads.

10. There was no Swan Upping in 2012. The Upping was supposed to be a part of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee tour, but due to flooding, the ceremony was cancelled for the first time in 900 years.
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