Birds invest wingbeats to keep a steady head and reap the ultimate benefits of flying together.

Research paper by Lucy A LA Taylor, Graham K GK Taylor, Ben B Lambert, James A JA Walker, Dora D Biro, Steven J SJ Portugal

Indexed on: 12 Mar '20Published on: 19 Jun '19Published in: PLoS biology


Flapping flight is the most energetically demanding form of sustained forwards locomotion that vertebrates perform. Flock dynamics therefore have significant implications for energy expenditure. Despite this, no studies have quantified the biomechanical consequences of flying in a cluster flock or pair relative to flying solo. Here, we compared the flight characteristics of homing pigeons (Columba livia) flying solo and in pairs released from a site 7 km from home, using high-precision 5 Hz global positioning system (GPS) and 200 Hz tri-axial accelerometer bio-loggers. As expected, paired individuals benefitted from improved homing route accuracy, which reduced flight distance by 7% and time by 9%. However, realising these navigational gains involved substantial changes in flight kinematics and energetics. Both individuals in a pair increased their wingbeat frequency by 18% by decreasing the duration of their upstroke. This sharp increase in wingbeat frequency caused just a 3% increase in airspeed but reduced the oscillatory displacement of the body by 22%, which we hypothesise relates to an increased requirement for visual stability and manoeuvrability when flying in a flock or pair. The combination of the increase in airspeed and a higher wingbeat frequency would result in a minimum 2.2% increase in the total aerodynamic power requirements if the wingbeats were fully optimised. Overall, the enhanced navigational performance will offset any additional energetic costs as long as the metabolic power requirements are not increased above 9%. Our results demonstrate that the increases in wingbeat frequency when flying together have previously been underestimated by an order of magnitude and force reinterpretation of their mechanistic origin. We show that, for pigeons flying in pairs, two heads are better than one but keeping a steady head necessitates energetically costly kinematics.