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What Kind of Birds Fly In Formation and Why?

You may notice flocks of birds flying in formation, especially during autumn and spring. This may pique your interest if you are a bird enthusiast. Now, these birds mainly form two typical structures while flying- the V and the J structures.

Geese, Pelicans, Cranes, Cormorants, Ibis, Ducks, Seagulls, and Swans fly in formation. They fly to form a V or J structure. Some other migratory birds such as finches, hummingbirds, and sparrows fly in irregular formations. It gives them a sense of unity and saves them energy while migrating from far away countries.

However, it is not entirely true for every flock of birds flying in formation. There are many other species of birds that have different purposes. Thus, it depends on the birds you see from your area. Here is all the information you need about these flocks of birds.

Birds That Fly In Formation

There are a number of birds that fly in formation. Most of them fly from one country to another due to various reasons. In other cases, many birds also fly in flocks to cover short-distance routes. Here’s a list of birds that you might often notice flying in formation:

Swans

Swans fly high in the air, somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 feet high. Like most migratory birds, they also form a slanted line when flying in flocks. As the line they create looks like a V, it is called a V formation. The leader of their flock stays on the front to guide the swans behind it.

It is the tundra swans that mostly fly in such a form. They are large birds of nearly six feet; this makes it easy to distinguish them. To distinguish them further, notice their posture. Unlike mute swans, they have a straight posture while flying in formation.

Seagulls

Seagulls are large birds with an average height of 11.5 inches. It is easy for seagulls to fly in place with the other seagulls due to their height.

They also create a V-shaped flight formation when flying as a flock during October. However, there’s a catch. It is possible for them to fly in V formation only when there’s less wind. They fail to fly together as a flock in windy conditions. It is because the winds break apart their V formation.

As a result, they sometimes travel in loose flocks without forming a structure. This rule applies even when they are traveling far.

Flamingos

Flamingos are large birds with a height of around 43 inches. They usually fly in V formation, but may also change the formation at times. During the flight, the flamingos stay tightly close to one another, which makes the formation look tidier than other bird formations.

The speed of their V formation flight depends upon the wind. Hence, it varies between 30 to 40 mph in each flight.

Geese

Geese are the most common birds that people sight flying in formation. Like most birds, they fly overheads in a symmetrical V-shaped formation. It helps them keep track of every goose in the flight.

It also encourages coordination between the geese. They communicate between themselves and keep a constant V formation throughout the flight. As a result, the structure they form looks neat from afar.

Pelicans

Pelicans tend to fly in V formation. It is mostly the adult pelicans that you may notice in V formation flights. To distinguish them from afar, know that they have large brownish-grey bodies. They are a common sight if you live near their habitat or within their routes of migration.

In addition, they fly slowly in formations. However, it does not indicate that they exert fewer efforts, especially when it is about the leading pelican in the formation. The leading pelican flaps more than all the trailing pelicans at the back.

Cormorants

Cormorants are dark brown and black with a height of 30 to 32 inches. When they fly overhead, they may look like geese. While flying, they do not constantly keep the V formation; they fly irregularly.

They often change formation to create sloppy V formations or irregularly shaped lines. During that time, all the cormorants in the flock fly with their heads up with their neck slightly bent.

Ibis

While migrating, the Northern bald ibises fly in formation. They maintain a perfect V formation without disrupting the order.

It is a native in Europe in the middle ages. Their flock flying in formation can be widely seen from parts of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and southern and central Europe.

Cranes

Cranes are one of the many migratory birds that fly in V formation. It is the sandhill cranes that follow this form the most while migrating. It is worth noting that they will initially keep the formation perfect. After a few miles, they will constantly change shape.

The sides of the flock will gradually move upwards and downwards. Sometimes, a few sandhill cranes at the back may often fall out of the group for some time. After some time, they will regain their position and rejoin the group to fly in V formation again.

Ducks

Ducks as well fly in formation. The shape of the formation changes with time. They are relatively small birds, which makes them weak against the strong winds.

They usually fly in V formation, but it may change as they experience changes in the wind force. Sometimes, they may fly together to look like a checkmark. It is a useful method for ducks to deal with winds.

Tree Swallows

Tree swallows are small birds of 5.5 inches that fly towards the north during summer in formations. Millions of tree swallows occupy the sky to avoid other predatory birds.

Initially and during the journey, they rise upwards to create a funnel formation. And most importantly, the flight is smooth due to every member of the flock maintaining its position.

Why Do Birds Fly In Formation?

To begin with, they create such structures to conserve energy. The fact that birds migrate thousands of kilometers to reach their destination is a no-brainer. Such long-distance journeys need a lot of energy. They create diverse structures to use the least amount of energy and work possible.

It’s a way for birds to deal with strong winds. Keeping on checking all the reasons why they fly in formation will help you enhance your knowledge about this topic!

The leading birds at the front of the formation do most of the job. They flap their wings more often than the bird at the back of the formation. Thus, the trailing birds conserve energy by 71% as they take advantage of the airflow. It is because they get a free lift using the airflow created by the birds flying alongside.

As you may have already noticed, most birds in the formation stay within one and three yards behind the bird in the front. It makes saving the greatest levels of energy easy for all the birds in the line. However, it does not apply to the leading bird as it stays in front of the birds.

Usually, migratory birds stop to have food, rest and recover for the remaining part of their journey. As a result of conserving energy, they require less food and rest. Now saving energy will require them to stop less often. It will take the birds less time to reach their destination. And a lesser time for migration will only benefit them.

Secondly, some birds fly in formation to protect themselves. Flying in formation acts as a defense mechanism. It is mostly true when they fly in different formations other than V formation. The birds in the flock feel safer as it protects them from other predatory birds; they mostly include small birds like sparrows and ducks which fly in formation.

Predatory birds such as Eagles, Falcons, Hawks, Owls, Caracaras, and Kites target single birds roaming freely in the sky. But when the birds fly in formation, it makes it difficult for such predatory birds to target individually from the flock.

It is why birds try to maintain their position in the formation. The birds that leave behind the formation are more vulnerable to predatory birds. They will most likely be hunted and eaten alive by their predators. Hence, the formation moves as the leading bird moves; it maintains its position to protect every member of the flock.

Lastly, birds fly in formation for proper communication. They encourage orientation to keep up with the efforts and coordination during the flight. Making all sorts of noises they also communicate to stay in touch with the flock and announce the incoming of the predatory birds. When they become aware, they prepare themselves to fly against those birds.

Overall, the whole point of the birds flying in formation is to protect all the members of the flock. It helps them reach the highest level of efficiency during each flight. Hence, a huge flock of birds covering long-distance journeys considers it necessary to fly in formation.

How Do Birds Fly In Formation?

Birds flying in formation makes it easy for them to complete a long-distance flight. The leading bird creates complexity in the airflow while it flies. This is what keeps the structure of the formation steady at most times. As it flaps its wings, it creates a whirling mass of air. Then, that vortex creates an air movement that keeps pushing the bird at the back.

But even scientists before 2014 did not know how they fly in perfect structures without breaking the formation. Luckily, due to research in 2014 about northern bald ibises, we can talk in detail about this topic.

As mentioned earlier, birds fly in such a manner to conserve energy. It means that air movement has a significant role in this. It lets the birds form V and J formations more easily.

In simple words, the air behind the birds gets a downward push every time the leading birds flap. It is also known as downwash as the air is pushed downwards; the angle of the wing is negative at this time. On the other hand, the air behind and off the birds gets an upward push. At this time, the wing will be at a positive angle. This movement of the air is known as upwash.

As a result, the birds at the back of the formation have a heart rate that is 13% slower than the birds at the front. This piece of information was proven by Henri Weimerskirch in 2001 when he attached heart-rate monitors with the pelicans in a formation.

Other than just the air movement helping them fly in formation, there is also coordination among the members of the flock. Every bird in the flock follows the bird next to them to imitate their movement. For instance, if the nearest 4 to 5 birds in the front take a turn, all the birds behind it will also take a turn. It enables faster smooth, fast, and accurate movements.

Additionally, coordination is impossible without communication. The members of the flock communicate with each other to plan their actions. This is how they know when to interchange positions within the formation and when to change the structure of the formation. They communicate by making noises, which is the bird language.

Sometimes, the reaction time is too less for the birds at the back to follow the birds in the front. In such a case, birds anticipate seeing a movement far down the line to know what to do next. This is also known as the chorus-line hypothesis. Following this, the birds react more slowly than if it was following the bird next to it.

When And Where Can You Watch Birds Flying In Formation?

The flight in formations of migratory birds is called echelons. Typically, they start to fly in formation after the breeding season ends. Cave Creek Canyon, Patagonia Sonoita Creek Preserve, New York City’s Central Park are some of the places where you can spot birds flying in formation.

Using information about the echelons’ behavior, it is possible to sight the birds flying in formation at the right time. The time after the breeding is known as autumn roosting as it occurs during mid-autumn to winter.

It is the perfect season for the birds to start perching. At that time of the year, young birds start to grow old, while the adult ones search for places they could rest.

The RSPB mentions that this may happen around September. However, in many other places, it begins in October or November. Approximately, the season lasts for about six months, which indicates that it may last till March.

Nevertheless, the peak time of the year is generally December to January. Most migratory birds fly in formations at this time to reach their destination.

Most birds join the flock just before dusk. Small or large birds come flying from all directions to create a huge flock. It is possible to watch them constantly fly in formation for about 30 minutes before they start dispersing.

Unfortunately, you will get to watch this mostly in large open areas. They rest outside cities and in the countryside. Other than just large open areas, they may also stop to rest in woodlands, cliffs, valleys, parks, and reed beds.

If you live near Cave Creek Canyon and the Patagonia Sonoita Creek Preserve, you can easily watch them fly over your heads. Additionally, New York City’s Central Park is also a great place for watching these. Before you start for these places, make sure the weather condition is calm and the skies are clear. It is because they do not fly in large flocks when the skies are gloomy.

Other places include Higbee Beach on Delaware Bay in New Jersey, Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Central New Mexico. In such areas, millions of birds put on their aerial acrobatics during evenings.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, Acadia National Park in coastal Maine, and Sax-Zim Bog in Northeastern Minnesota also have thousands of such birds. These are popular bird-sighting sites.

But it is worth noting that these are not the only places you will find the birds flying in different formations. The birds fly together anywhere and anytime they want, which is why it does not have a specific time and place.

The sky looks beautiful when they fly in different formations over our heads during specific times of the year. The sight is breathtaking.