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C Cutts, J Speakman


Fifty-four skeins of pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) were photographed from directly underneath to eliminate the effects of perspective distortion, and the wing-tip spacings (the distance between adjacent birds' wing tips perpendicular to the flight path at maximum wingspan) and depths (the distance between adjacent birds' body centres parallel to the flight path) were measured at the same time as local wind speeds. The photographs were used to test for savings in induced power from wing positioning relative to the predicted positions of vortices generated by other wings, using a theoretical model. The mean wing-tip spacing corresponded to a saving in induced power of 14 %, less than one-third of the maximum possible. The saving in total power might be as low as 2.4 %. The high variation in wing-tip spacing suggests that pink-footed geese found difficulty maintaining position and thus adopted a strategy of flying outboard of the optimal position that maximises savings. This may minimise the risk of straying into a zone where savings are negative. There was a significant correlation between depth and wing-tip spacing, supporting an alternative communication hypothesis, whereby the birds position themselves to obtain maximum information on their neighbour's position. In high winds, there was little change in wing-tip spacing variation but a decrease in depth variation, suggesting a shift towards more regularly spaced skeins.