Avian Formation: Why Do Geese Fly in a V?

Posted by Stacey Venzel
canada geese

What's that V in the sky? It's a flock of geese, and they're using physics to help them fly.

A common occurrence throughout parts of North America is to see Canada geese migrating through the sky. Their distinguishable honking often leads people to look up overhead, only to find a flying V in the clouds.

Birds have extremely well-adapted bodies for flights, from their hollow bones down to their perfectly-aligned feathers. But some also work together as a team when traveling overhead.

The V formation reduces the downward pull that is a natural occurrence of gravity acting on an object in motion in the air. Flying behind each other creates free lift, the upward force activated in flight. In other words, flying in a V saves energy.

geese flying

We can relate this to a trek through freshly fallen, knee-deep snow. The person leading the trail has to create those initial footprints into which everyone else follows, the followers thereby exerting less energy because they have less snow to trudge through.

Because the bird in front doesn't benefit from increased lift, the geese switch out every now and then, taking turns being the leader. At times the V might look uneven, instead creating an echelon or stair-step shape. Researchers believe some birds just prefer one side over another.

flying geese

Regardless of where they fly in the V, geese will sync their flapping with the bird in front of them, adjusting accordingly to maintain as much energy as possible. The honking often associated with V formation is theorized to be a way of communicating what is happening in the sky, like turbulence from a thermal.

Scientists have also noted that geese will help the sick or injured members of their flock. A couple birds will fall out of line to fly slower and in a smaller V to aid their ailing feathered friend.

What other cool things do you want to know about birds? Tell us in the comments below!

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Avian Formation: Why Do Geese Fly in a V?