You’ve probably seen birds in the sky flying together as a group. Some species of bird will fly in a “V” or other shaped formation. Why do they do this? What benefit is there?
One of the reasons is that it helps birds survive. It’s easier to find food and stay safe from predators when in a group, rather than on one’s own.1 When birds are together, they have an easier time spotting predators and can keep themselves safe by mobbing the predator and overwhelming them in their numbers. On the ground, too, birds can have an advantage when staying together – like keeping warm or increased protection for their offspring.2
Migrating is easier when birds fly together in specific formations, too. Waterfowl, like geese or pelicans, will fly in a “V” shape.1 When they fly this way, they save about 50% of their energy than they would if they were flying alone. Flying in this shape creates updrafts between the birds, so they each get a lift from each other and don’t have to work as hard. Birds in the front of the group will take turns leading so they have time to rest during the journey as well.3
Another type of formation that you can see is called a murmuration. This is something that European starlings as well as some other species, like blackbirds or shorebirds, are known for.3 Murmurations are huge gatherings of these birds and they’ll fly together seamlessly.
Scientists have been curious about just how birds can manage this spectacular flight without running into each other. They were able to figure out some of how this works by studying schools of fish, which move in a similar way. It turns out that while “V” formations in migrations have a leader, these murmurations are more like a democracy. Each bird watches its neighbors and will follow suit with any kind of movement their neighbors make. There isn’t one leader in the group, but everyone has a part in the movements. This allows them to coordinate so well.1
Another amazing thing about flight is how some birds can do it so silently! Barn Owls in particular are great at this. Read our blog post here on how they do it.