Geese, the V-formation and how to save the planet

I was out for a walk recently with my son in the neighborhood. A beautiful fall day, the leaves were just beginning to turn colors, the sky a brilliant blue with the haze of summer having lifted. We heard in the distance the honking of geese overhead. We both turned around and my son asked what the geese were doing. I told him that many birds, including geese migrate south for the winter. He tilted his head toward the sky and curiously inquired why the geese looked like the letter V? I mumbled something about how it likely made flying easier as they can use the updraft from the bird flying just ahead, but the truth was I did not really know the true explanation for this phenomenon.

So, when we arrived home from our walk, with google at my fingertips, I began to search more about the mystical V-formation and its origins. So, it is true that the V formation conserves energy on the arduous trip Southward. In fact, by flying in this formation the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. If a goose falls out of the formation, it immediately feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it by themselves and returns quickly to the formation to reap the benefit of the lifting power of the bird in front. This effect is known as aerodynamic wash-up. The V-formation is about flying in the right place and flapping at the right time.

Now, if that was not compelling enough, there are a few more interesting facts about the way migratory birds fly and their relationship to one another. Make no mistake, these long-distance migratory treks are arduous. Mortality rates among the birds take a sharp uptick during these long flights. At the front of the V-formation is the leader position which reaps none of the benefit of the updrafts as those who follow behind, yet geese each take their turn at the front of the formation. When one gets tired and falls back from the lead position, another moves forward to take its place.

But why do they do that and how do they decide who s to take the difficult position? Scientists worked with an Austrian conservation group Waldrappteam which is working to bring critically endangered Ibis birds back from the edge of extinction. They raised the Ibis chicks in captivity at the Salzburg zoo in Austria and then used an Ultralight aircraft to lead them cross country on their first migratory trip to Italy for the winter.

And here is what is fascinating about what they learned by tracking these birds. No singe bird stayed in the tough, lead position for an extended amount of time. Each Ibis would usually spend less than a minute at the tip of the V before quickly switching with one of the next birds in the formation. What that would look like, is that over the course of a typical flight of 3–8 hours, each bird would perform hundreds of changes in position and the transitions were virtually seamless. And although each individual time spent at the front of the formation could differ widely, on average all birds did approximately equal amounts of work. “All of the birds contribute almost equally to the investment of leading the flock,” Voelkl said and this came as a surprise to the researchers.

Another amazing thing about the geese is how when one goose becomes ill, shot or injured, and drops out of the formation, two other geese will fall out of formation and remain with the injured goose, The stay steadfastly with that goose and protect them from predators until they can resume the flight or they die.

As I pondered the remarkable relationship between the geese, how they relied upon the incredible interdependence and the care they extended to each and every member of the community I thought to myself how we really have it all wrong. With the ever widening gap between the have and the have nots, between the ultra-wealthy and those just trying to make it day by day- that we could learn a lot from the geese. Our current capitalistic, power wielding hierarchy demands the exact opposite of the V-formation.

A few demand to never have a turn at the tip of the V-formation. Through power and corruption, we manipulate political systems in an effort to keep the 1% from ever having to be part of the bigger collective and carry their respective weight. In order to do this, they must somehow keep the rest of the geese believing that they must carry the weight and never feel the benefits of time at the tip, to rest and recuperate. They are manipulated into staying in the grind in perpetuity. We have designed a system to keep the underprivileged bearing the enormous workload so the relative few can fly with ease.

This is unsustainable. The geese have learned this, so why can’t we? I imagine a world where we emulate the geese flying in V-formation. One where everyone takes their turn at the front, pulling the load for the group for a short while in order to allow for others in the community to experience some ease and conserve energy. In our world currently, we take the most marginalized and disenfranchised and push them toward the front, leaving no opportunity to drop back and be supported by the larger group.

Why are we surprised then when we are confronted with an unprecedented amount of mental illness, addiction and watching the devastating effects we see to our physical health. We are designed to be in balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. We must be able to move fluidly from exertion and work, into rest and recuperation to support our emotional, physical and spiritual selves.

And if that was not heartbreaking enough, when those who have spent more than their fair share of time at the front become ill or too compromised to continue the flight, we abandon them to their fate. Instead of embracing the humanity demonstrated by the geese where we help those that are vulnerable, instead, we do horrible things like make healthcare unattainable, allow corporate healthcare systems to deny treatment, thereby leaving those who are sick to face potential bankruptcy, illness, and are ultimately left to fend for themselves.

I have come to terms with the idea that I alone cannot save the world, nor can I make others see that there is a more humane, compassionate way to live. I have brought solace to my own spirit however, by takin the teachings of the geese to heart and remind myself how they all work together to make what is a difficult and formidable endeavor, easier for all and not just one. I often ask myself, is there some way I can go to the front of the V-formation, pay it forward and make things a little easier, offer respite to others for just a short while? And when it’s time, can I allow myself the relative ease and comfort offered by those around me and really take that it and allow my own nervous system time to be nourished and supported.

In the end, the geese remind us that we are not alone on this journey and that in the end we are all connected, just like the geese. Our success or failure in saving the planet is wholly dependent upon our remembering this.

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