January 16, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Formation Flight Physics Mastered by Birds

Birds fly in that beautiful V formation for a reason, and it requires sophisticated abilities in high precision aerodynamics.

Scientists have finally confirmed that the V-formation used by geese and other large migratory birds provides an energy benefit.  A new paper in Nature describes the work of Steven Portugal and team, who trained rare northern bald ibises to trust them as surrogate moms.  First outfitting the birds with data collectors, they took them up on practice flights following an ultralight aircraft and filmed their flying dynamics.

According to the BBC News, the birds not only found the ideal positions behind their flockmates, but timed their wingflaps for best advantage, too.  The ideal position behind and to the side of a front bird allows them to take advantage of the “upwash” of the front bird’s flap, and the synchronized flapping (in phase with wave trains) avoids the downwash.  As a result, the flock propagates a wavetrain down both arms of the V that gives them an extra lift on a cushion of air, saving energy.

Analysis of the films showed that the birds were matching theoretical ideals for energy conservation.  Being able to do this requires sophisticated math, sophisticated senses, or both.  In a Nature News piece entitled “Precision formation flight astounds scientist,”  Chelsea Wald wrote that “the models also indicated that the birds’ coordination would have to be exceptionally precise to make a difference, and many scientists had doubted that the animals could achieve such a feat during flight.”  Well, they can:

Amazing FactsPortugal collected data for three flight days of the 36-day paraplane-led migration. From that, he selected a problem-free seven-minute segment to analyze. To his surprise, the analysis showed that the birds’ formation fitted the theoretical predictions of aerodynamics. “They’re placing themselves in the best place and flapping at the best time,” he says.

The birds instinctively adopted the energy-efficient strategy, even though, as orphans raised in captivity, they had no parents to teach them.  Something built into the birds allows them to do the math and optimize the physics.

None of the articles had much use for evolutionary theory.  The original paper mentioned kin selection only to dismiss it, then only made a meager suggestion that “aerodynamic mechanisms that reduce the energetic cost of (albeit only very infrequent) migratory flight may present considerable selection advantage.”  The statement fails, though, to explain how that advantage arose by unguided processes in the animals’ brains and sensory equipment.  The word “evolution” did not appear in the articles and papers.  In its place were words like amazing, astounding, remarkable, and exciting.  Indeed, design was the focus: the capability is so interesting, aircraft designers want to learn how the birds do it, so that they, too, can conserve energy.

More evidence that evolutionary theory is useless, but intelligent design is at the forefront of scientific advances.  Also a reminder to order Flight: The Genius of Birds for its beautiful imagery, amazing stories, and cogent arguments for intelligent design in all the varied aspects of our feathered friends.





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