Have you ever looked up in the sky, and found flocks of birds, all flying together in a ‘V formation?’ Birds that do this in England include swans, ducks and geese. As well as being a good way to confuse predators, it’s mostly done to save energy of constant wing-flapping, by getting an ‘uplift of air’ from the birds in front (the leader changes around, but is always an experienced flyer). Like choosing the best hitter, for your team! Ducks often meet up just for a few hours, fly together then go their separate ways.
Saving energy is very important for birds that migrate long distances (like whooper swan who migrate to and from Iceland). What’s sweet is that geese in particular will drop down and stay with an injured goose until it dies (or if it recovers, they then join it to find a new flock, if they can’t catch the other one up). Geese also ‘honk’ as they migrate, using their markings as ‘landing lights’ for those behind, so nobody gets lost!
Arctic terns (who travel a whopping 22,000 miles a year for the world’s longest migration) fly together, even ‘sleeping on the wing’ for some of the time. Just before they take flight, they go silent, though if you go near them, they will peck at your head in defense of their nests. Due to flying from the Arctic to Antarctic, they see more daylight than any other creature on earth, due to the sun never setting in many parts of the world. But climate change has decimated populations of sand eels (on which they feed). RSPB reports that recently, 700 pairs in the Shetland Isles failed to breed even one chick.
Not all migrating birds fly in flocks. Sparrows and hummingbirds are so small, they would get no benefit from the flapping of wings in front.
how bird diverters help flying birds
One area where councils can help is to install bird diverters, which help swans and geese avoid electricity lines (which saves their lives, and also reduces power cuts). Swans can fly fast but as big heavy birds, they need a good run-up, to get off the ground. So they can become disorientated near roads, and this can result in electrocution (or broken wings). Designed to twist or rotate, they offer earning warning and glowing light (for night flying).
Already installed across England, one area seeing positive results is a wetland trust in Lancashire (home to 30,000 pink-footed geese and 2,500 whooper swans). Near Peterborough (Cambridgeshire), 80 bird diverters were installed along 500 metres of power cable, to stop low-flying swans feeding in a nearby field, before roosting overnight.
the starlings’ winter sky dance
Have you ever looked up in the sky and seen a swoop of birds performing a swirling ‘sky dance’ just before dusk? Likely this was a ‘murmuration’ of starlings, which twist, turn, swoop and swirl across the sky in beautiful shape-shifting clouds. The swirling is done to stay together, to deter predators who get confused by thousands of them, dancing in the sky together. They also share information on where to find food the next day.
Starlings are one of our most common birds, with some living here year-round and others migrating from northern Europe in winter. They come together at a communal roosting site, and perform an aerial dance that is mesmerising! You’re likely to see more in autumn and winter, simply because there are more of them! Nobody knows how they fly like this, without bumping into each other! The best way to help birds, is to leave them alone in nature! Read how to help our garden birds and how to help stop birds flying into windows.