Migrating ibises take turns leading the flying V

Norther bald ibises flying

Northern bald ibises fly in formation on their way to Italy.

Courtesy of Markus Unsöld

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Ibises fly as a team. Flying in a V formation, the birds coordinate their movements and swap spots, so each bird gets turns flying in another’s wake to save energy, says a study published February 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

Using bird-borne data loggers and a parachute plane, a team led by researchers at the University of Oxford followed 14 Northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) on their annual migration from Austria to Italy. The ibises spent about 32 percent of their time flying behind others, and a proportionate amount of time leading. This level of cooperative behavior is rare in animals and may help the birds fly more cohesively as a whole, the researchers suggest.

A northern bald ibis might look fierce, but these birds seem to have a propensity to share the workload when migrating. Courtesy of Johannes Fritz
Pictured above the Adriatic Sea, Northern bald ibises flew in flocks of 2 to 12 birds during their migration. Courtesy of Johannes Fritz
The ibises imprinted onto human foster parents, pictured above, who guided the birds on their migratory path in an ultralight parachute plane. Courtesy of Johannes Fritz

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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