You've heard of being a copycat, but what about a copyflap? That's apparently just what birds are doing when flying in a V-formation, something that's frequently seen when giant flocks migrate across the skies each year. A new study published by the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK suggests birds keep an eye on the leader, as well as their place in a formation, matching their flaps to ride waves of thin, spiraling air sent off by the lead bird and those who follow. The practice saves the animals behind the leader considerable effort as they flap on the updrafts, something that comes in handy over migrations that can stretch thousands of miles.

Birds with accelerometers and GPS

Finding out the specific energy savings and conditions for flying in formation was no easy task. Researchers spent nearly a month tracking a group of Northern bald ibises from Austria to Italy, with 14 of those birds sporting GPS loggers and accelerometers to track wing flap activity. Those birds were trained from a young age to follow humans, something the team took advantage of by flying an ultralight aircraft to watch the animals for long periods of time as they traversed the skies. Even so, the research team managed to capture just a single seven-minute-long stretch where the birds were in ideal formation, and where it was easy to see how each bird adjusted while in position.

The research could lead to a deeper understanding of whether there are differences in patterning among bird species, as well as how to carry over the techniques to human creations like airplanes and drones. You can watch a detailed video of the birds in flight, as well as see how the sensors were used, over at Nature.