How Birds Master Coordinated Flight

Other Animals

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image by Photo by Gareth Davies on Unsplash

When you see a grouping of birds, it’s called a flock. The practice of flocking serves two known purposes; to fly together during migratory periods, or to forage for food. It’s the whole safety in numbers thing.

The visual appearance of a flock is an amazing view all by itself.  We’re often awestruck by the uniquely beautiful synchronicity the birds exhibit with their ordered pattern of flights. Flock flight requires amazing coordination and control, otherwise, you’d have a group of birds flying to their own whims, which would result in unsatisfactory and unproductive intent. Therefore, applied natural science is in effect as the birds fly from destination to destination. But what exactly are they doing to maintain such control, to attain a concerted effort for useful results?

Flight Patterns Go With the Flow

Birds must be heavily involved in the attention of their closest neighbors in flight. It is with that acute attention that birds can then pass on flight patterns to others with instantaneous decision-making processes during their flight as a flock. Essential rules in flight involve the interests of avoiding collision with other birds and matching the speed of others to maintain a useful intent. Imagine the intellectual and computational forces those brains must have to calculate and convey immediate intent all within a moment’s notice. As the size of a flock increases, the concern for predators seems to dissipate more than if the flock were a smaller group but it also increases dissonance for the growing group.

Starlings depend on at least seven of their neighboring flyers to gain information of intended flight patterns. Science communities are continually evaluating these natural efforts as they could also yield useful information for the development of more effective aircraft. When the elements of aerodynamics are naturally used by birds, we pay closer attention to their successes in the hopes that we can replicate them.

Birds take advantage of the natural flow of air in the atmosphere. These flows, modified by their motion, offer a useful reduction of energy needed for the effort. But, as a group gets larger, useful aerodynamics can be impeded to cause disruptions that can lead to collision. In fact, it has been noted that larger groups experience the problem of late-following birds becoming more disconcerted in their attempts to fly with the flock. They seem to have to work harder to stay effective.

Following the Lead

In smaller groups, leading neighbors leave behind a flow of air that can lift and help maintain the flight levels of following birds. Studies have shown that the lead birds help create a better airflow for their nearest neighbors, but the wave-like oscillated air created by lead flyers gain more intensity further down the line, making it more difficult for late-following birds within the flock to maintain an effectual flight pattern.

Recent studies were done at NYU Applied Mathematics Laboratory, where a small team of researchers conducted experiments with 3D-printed flappers that simulate birds’ wings. The flappers were powered by motors in an effort to replicate and watch how air flows around birds’ wings. The experiments yielded surprising results that show how birds might specifically organize to create essential forces and use those forces to help them in their flights in various groupings. We’re learning from birds with their use of natural physics.

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