Follow the leader

We always associate fall with southward flights of geese and ducks in formation.

The stereotypical "V" formation is actually much more aerodynamically efficient and reduces the energy cost of long-range flight. By John Benson (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Question:  why do geese fly in a “V”?  Answer:  Because it would be too hard to fly in an “S”.
Photo by John Benson (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

The stereotypical “V” formation of migrating geese, ducks, cranes, etc. is actually much more aerodynamically efficient and reduces the energy cost of long-range flight.  Each bird (except the leader) can utilize the updraft (lifting power) created by the wingtips of the bird in front of it. When the leader begins to tire, another bird takes over, and the flight formation remains intact.

Follow the leader seems to be instilled in waterfowl soon after hatching, as they follow their mother (and/or father) from roosting to feeding sites.  This has obvious survival advantages for the new offspring.

A protective pair of parents makes sure their little ducklings stay in line.

A protective pair of parents makes sure their little ducklings stay in line.

But it seems that this habit of follow the leader plays out while walking and swimming as well.  Minnesota drivers are very familiar with traffic jams imposed by a herd of geese crossing the road, deliberately slow-paced plodders that walk single file in an unending line.  It’s like waiting for a train to clear the railroad crossing.

Even crossing the wide open spaces of the parkland, geese move slowly in single file toward their destination -- in this case a creek.

Even crossing the wide open spaces of the parkland, geese move slowly in single file toward their destination — in this case a creek.

geese follow the leader

"OK, everybody get a drink before we head out..." Birds dunk their heads in and then tip them back to let the water run down their throats.  They can't lap or suck the water in as a mammal would.

“OK, everybody get a drink before we head out…”
Birds dunk their heads in and then tip them back to let the water run down their throats. They can’t lap or suck the water in as a mammal would.

And off they go, down the creek into the lake, still in "follow the leader" formation.   Doesn't it make you wonder if there is a smart goose at the front of the pack that always knows where to go?

And off they go, down the creek into the lake, still in “follow the leader” formation.
Doesn’t it make you wonder if there is a smart goose at the front of the pack that always knows where to go?

9 thoughts on “Follow the leader

    • I know they switch leaders when they switch directions, but I’m going on the basis of what others have said about swapping out the leader as that individual tires. As for who that leader is, I wonder if it is the most dominant (behaviorally) in a flock?

  1. Fascinating. That is the same technique that a time of cyclists will use to take advantage of drafting and to conserve energy (and they swap out as leaders). Some folks regard the Canada Geese as a nuisance (and they can be messy), but, as you probably can guess, I like them.

    • However, to gain the energy advantage in biking, you have to be directly behind the person in front of you, which I think means that you have simply reduced the resistance to your mass moving through air. When birds (and airplanes) fly in “V” formation, they are seeking a lift advantage. I’m not sure how much reduction in resistance to forward movement they gain, although it is probably measurable.

  2. Love the final picture with the bare trees, geese, and water. The joke at the top about geese flying in a V because it’s easier than an S prompted a fond memory: I recall my daughter at about age 5 pointing up at some southbound geese in the sky and saying, “Wow! Look! They’re making a letter Y!” (Indeed, the V was straggly enough it looked a bit more like Y…but her remark made me smile because nobody had ever told her it was supposed to be a V, which made me wonder who was the first to say it was a V, setting the standard for all geese thereafter 🙂

    • That’s a cute story, Christina. I’ve seen some Y formations as well, or at the least, sloppy V’s. So your question is a good one — who decided V was the standard?

      • Not the geese I saw this a.m., anyway. At least 100 of them were flying overhead, in three very straggly V’s that interwove and then split apart. Amazing sight. The crows began cawing in alarm, perhaps thinking it was a super-predator!

    • Thanks, Rachael. I wonder how many posts you saw that tried to imitate your technique for shooting the starburst sun? I saw at least a couple of others, and tried it myself.

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