Hart at al., Frontiers in Zoology, 2013.
Each tiny triangle represents a flock of birds. As birds approach at a location, they are coming from all different directions (a). As they prepare for arrival, many switch to a north-south direction (b). As they land, most are in a north-south orientation (c).
Have you ever wondered how flying flocks of birds land . . . without ending in a multi-bird pileup?
This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.
Imagine a duck in a tight flock about to land. A neighboring birdbrain crosses into its path—bam! It could create a huge feather-bender! Yet that never seems to happen. Why?
Meet the appropriately-named Hynek Burda from Germany's University of Duisburg-Essen. His team videotaped the landings of more than 3,000 flocks of birds of various species in various countries. They noticed something peculiar. No matter what direction flocks were flying, they almost always landed along a north-south axis. Why? Wind directions were all over the map. Sun position didn’t matter. Even true north wasn’t a cue. Just magnetic north. What gives?
The researchers think Earth's magnetic field doubles as a bird landing strip! Birds can sense it. And if each loose goose aligns along the north-south axis? The whole flock lands in formation.
Or if you prefer a sports analogy? It allows a touchdown without any careless . . . fowls. Sorry.
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