Canada Geese and the famous flying V

As autumn is gradually turning to winter, in today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Visitor Team supervisor Peter takes us on a journey to discover more about the famous Canada Geese and their migratory habits.

For more information on our Natural History collections, have a look at our Curator’s blog.

Canada Geese and the famous flying V

If you live in their native continent of North America or one of the countries to which they have been introduced, such as UK, New Zealand or Chile, you’ll most likely recognise the Canada Goose’s trademark black heads and necks, white cheeks and brown bodies, and their equal commitment to both taking bread at your local parks and audacious honking. (Side note, here is why you shouldn’t feed geese bread)

Canada Geese are a common symbol of migration, however not all Canada Geese migrate, as they have become very skilled at surviving in human altered spaces. In parks for instance, they are regularly fed by visitors and have few natural predators, but what about the ones that do migrate?

Migration

Their migration represents a pivotal moment of change and transition in the year, a sign of longer days to come after long winters and cosy nights by the fire. It’s also a scene of nature’s intuition at its finest, the geese instinctively know that it’s time for a long journey toward warmer climes in autumn and then start a family when the spring arrives.

Canada Geese in flight (source)

If you see and hear a group of large loud birds above in a V formation in autumn or spring, you’re possibly looking at a flock of Canada Geese during their migration. Their flight formation is easy enough to recognise, but do you know why it’s a V shape?

Why the flying V?

So why do geese use the flying V formation? Scientists believe the V formation serves a purpose that is less to do with direction and more to do with efficiency. Each goose flies a little lower than the one in front, meaning there is less wind resistance for each subsequent goose and if the leader gets tired they will fall back and let another take the reins.

To try and find out more about why birds fly in a V formation, in 2001 Henri Weimerskirch fitted a flock of pelicans with heart monitors. It was found that the pelicans at the back had lower heart rates than those up front – they had less work to do. This proved its benefit, but didn’t explain why or how.

Later, Dr Johannes Fritz and Dr Steven Portugal developed a way to teach the young, critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis to fly on their old migration routes by leading them with a microlight aircraft and fitting them with monitors to record the flap of their wings.

Bald Ibis, Manchester Museum Collection, part of the 2016 exhibition ‘Extinction or Survival?’

Dr Fritz found that yes, they fly about a metre behind and about metre to the side, swapping positions regularly with no definitive leader. They also discovered that flapping at the right time is also important:

As each bird flaps its wings, the trail of upwash left by its wingtips also moves up and down. The birds behind can somehow sense this and adjust their own flapping to keep their own wings within this moving zone of free lift. “They trace the same path that the bird in front traced through the air”  – Steven Portugal

The researchers leading the Ibis’ in flight (source: Waldrappteam)

This explained why but not how they knew to do it. Portugal says that it was assumed they learnt from an adult, but that the flock they used were all the same age… so remarkably so, they must have learnt from each other.

This isn’t something that’s passed down, as we so often see in the animal kingdom, it’s something every generation can learn from each other. This research has been applied to what we know about Canada Geese and their ability to fly vast distances and why they choose a V formation. It seems to come down to intuition, experimentation, communication and teamwork.

These skills are what gets the Canada goose through their long journeys and keeps their species thriving. In some ways we could learn a lot from our honking pals.

See you next spring, Geese!

Peter Fallon

Find out more:

Follow that microlight: Birds learn to migrate

Birds That Fly in a V Formation Use An Amazing Trick

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