Articles on Teamwork - Flying Geese and Teamwork in Action
Observations of geese in passage, show that they invariably adopt a “vee” formation, flying on the same level, equally spaced out but not necessarily along arms of equal length.
The important thing seems to be the vee must have an apex – that the leading bird should always have others on either side.
It has been suggested that this characteristic formation is nothing more than a simple consequence of the fact that geese have immobile eyes on the sides of their head, and that, with the beak pointed forward, the best way to keep a neighbouring bird in full view is to take up a place just behind it, either to the left or right eye side. But direct measurement of flights in Canada geese shows that the angle between the arms of the vee formation varies even in a single species between 28 and 44 degrees, which doesn’t necessarily correspond with the fixed angle of clearest focus.
Another theory suggests that the vee formation allows one goose, presumably a stronger and more experienced bird, to lead the way, cleaving a path through the air for the others. But, once again, field studies show that the leadership changes constantly and that this position, far from being reserved for wise old ganders, is in fact shared out amongst the younger and weaker members of the flock.
The answer is largely aerodynamic.
A recent computer study shows that there is an upwash beyond and behind the tip of a moving wing that can be useful to other birds nearby. If the spacing between is optimal, this saving in energy can be considerable. For instance, a formation of twenty five birds can be considerable. For instance, a formation of twenty five birds can, just by adopting the most favorable formation, increase their effective range by 71 percent.
And this seems to be precisely what happens. Travelling geese usually fly in groups of around twenty individuals and invariably adopt a vee formation. If they flew in line abreast on a common front, the birds in the centre would enjoy twice as much uplift as the ones on the end of the line. But as soon as the is bent backwards, the ones at the rear begin to pick up additional upwash from all those in front, which effectively cancels out most of the disadvantage of their position. And as they travel, other small inequities which may exist are dealt with by regular and democratic changes of place.
The significance of this elegant aerial shuffle is that the geese automatically take the line of least resistance, letting themselves be shaped by natural forces. A bird that moves ahead of the V line will suddenly discover that it needs to exert more power just to keep up, and one that drifts out of the area of optimal uplift will find itself in an awkward patch of clear air turbulence.
In addition to the pattern of formation, the computer study also predicts that maximum efficiency for a group of birds can be achieved by a cruising speed 24 percent lower than that which best suites a solo bird. And observation indicates that geese have not only discovered this to be true, but at slow speed are able also to take better advantage of the existence of any tail winds. The easy and proper things to do, is also the one that represents the most meaningful adaptation to the prevailing conditions. It is the move that makes environmental sense and emphasizes the many benefits of being social – of becoming part of a larger and more adaptive society.
Computers help us to understand the applied mathematics of social advantage, but there are other aspects of getting together for the greater good that are not as easily analysed. Something happens to groups of individual plants or animals that makes them more than the quantitative sum of their separate parts. They undergo qualitative changes that can be seldom be predicted from a knowledge only of the nature of the component parts.
They go through an almost magical transition that can produce some extraordinary results.
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