Driving across the plains of Kansas the other day, I noticed hundreds of geese in V formations flying north from their wintering grounds. A beautiful and amazing sight. Which got me thinking: what is the biological imperative that causes geese to fly in these formations? And what happens during their long trek if one goose can’t keep up?
Well, according to the Library of Congress, the V is extremely efficient, allowing geese to expend less energy. Because each bird flies slightly higher than the bird in front, they benefit aerodynamically, beat their wings less often, and in fact exhibit lower heart rates than birds flying alone.
But wait, there’s more.
When the bird in the front of the V tires – because flying in front means assuming the least advantageous position aerodynamically – that bird will move to the back and another bird will take its place. The birds each take a turn at leading, with birds in back honking encouragement. (That’s right, they honk encouragement to one another.)
As for my second question, about those unable to keep up, I found this pdf which includes an answer, written by Anne Muller, president of Wildlife Watch:
when a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, a few other geese will drop out of the V-formation to follow the bird down. They help and protect the injured bird. They stay with the goose until he or she dies or is able to fly again. Then, they take off with another V-formation or catch up with their own flock.
I thought about migrating geese, and their practices, coming on the heels of the wholesale firing of an entire staff of teachers at Central Falls High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Along with Race To the Top funding decisions expected to be announced soon, funding that will target only a select few states.
You can probably guess that I, as author of this piece, believe we should fly together. That we should take turns leading. That we should support those unable to keep up until they can rejoin, or until they’re able to form another group. With all of us heading toward a common destination.