New research reveals pigeons fit in one extra wingbeat per second when flying in pairs compared to flying solo.
Birds that fly in ‘V’-formations, such as geese, conserve energy by flying in aerodynamically optimal positions.
In contrast, species that don’t fly in formation, such as homing pigeons, the costs and benefits of flocking have been less understood.
Flying Solo Uses Less Energy
The research indicates that flying with another bird requires more energy compared to flying solo.
“Energy is the currency of life, so it’s astonishing that the birds are prepared to pay a substantial energetic cost to fly together,” says lead author, Dr. Lucy Taylor, University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology.
Using high-frequency GPS and accelerometer bio-loggers, researchers measured how pigeons changed their wingbeat patterns when flying in pairs compared to flying solo.
The accelerometers act much like fitness trackers but, instead of measuring steps, the researchers measure wing beats.
Flapping Faster to Fly Together
“The increase in wingbeat frequency is equivalent to Usain Bolt running the 100m sprint at his usual speed while fitting in nearly one extra step per second. The pigeons are flapping faster when flying in pairs but hardly going any faster,” says Dr. Taylor.
The increase in wingbeat frequency is likely to be related to the demands of coordinating flight.
“Imagine trying to coordinate with and avoid hitting another small object traveling at around 44 miles per hour.”
Taylor points out this is nearly two times faster than an Olympic sprinter, and the birds can move up and down as well as left and right.
Pigeons flapping their wings faster will give them faster reactions and greater control over their movements and will help keep their head stable making it easier to track where the other bird is.
Benefits of Birds Flocking
Despite the costs of fitting in one additional wingbeat per second, the birds consistently chose to fly together.
This suggests they were able to gain other benefits from flocking.
Birds flying in a pair were simultaneously able to improve their homing accuracy and conserve energy by flying shorter routes home.
The research suggests the benefits of flocking outweigh the immediate energetic costs of changing wing beat patterns.