The Science Behind Why Migrating Birds Fly in Zigzag Patterns

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Birds are amazing sky strategists. As MinuteEarth’s video below teaches us, their zigzagging migration patterns add at least 1000 extra miles to their annual journeys, yet their wings stay strong until they hit the tropics. The wind—not the prospect of a piña colada—is what keeps these avians aloft, as it pushes them along as they fly. These gusts can double their airspeed velocity, which is why birds will go to extra lengths to catch a ride on an air current that isn’t exactly in their neck of the sky.

This extra leg of the journey is worth it in the long run, as birds can arrive south in less than two-thirds of the time it would have taken if they flew straight. And larger birds with wings to match get extra lift from columns of rising air, called thermals, which form from unevenly heated ground.

MinuteEarth’s Emily Elert breaks down more bird science in the video below.