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The Straight Dope



Why do geese always fly in a V? And how do they figure out which goose will be the one in front? --Khia Willis, Baltimore

You ever try to organize geese into, say, a Q? They're not exactly rocket scientists, you know. Some geese can't even manage a V, preferring to fly in a diagonal line--an I, in other words--which no doubt puts less of a strain on their raisin-sized brains. Other geese like to fly in a J, although whether we should attribute this to a better-educated class of goose or mere slovenliness on the part of the V crowd is hard to say.

Other people have different ideas. One school of thought holds that geese fly in a V for aerodynamic reasons--each bird flies in the slipstream of the one in front of it, like race car drivers, in order to conserve energy. Thus far, however, this hypothesis has eluded laboratory confirmation. "While it is possible to train single birds to fly in a wind tunnel, no one has attempted to persuade a flock of birds to do so," one goose researcher notes sadly.

So ornithologists have turned to the next best thing: observation in the (heh-heh) field. Theoretical considerations suggest that geese would have to fly in a very precise formation if they were to derive any aerodynamic advantage. But when scientists filmed geese in flight, they discovered that (1) the angle of the V varied all over the place, but was generally sharper than theoretical models predicted; (2) intrabird distance was also pretty hit and miss; and (3) the geese didn't flap their wings synchronously or in any discernible pattern. So ixnay on the aerodynamics.

Others suggest that geese fly in a V because it helps them stay together: they can keep an eye on the bird to starboard while having an unobstructed view dead ahead. The fact that most geese have high-visibility tail markings tends to confirm this. But skeptics, most of them no doubt PO'ed aerodynamics partisans, argue that geese actually keep together by honking to one another during flight. Also, the flock maintains the V pattern after dark, which detracts some from the visual-contact notion.

Some think geese fly in a V so they can recognize members of their own species at a distance. This was advanced by one P. Ward in an article entitled, "Formation-flying as advertisement behavior," which suggests that, with a few simoleons in the right places, you could maybe get the geese to work up something along the lines of "EAT AT MOM'S." I personally find this hard to believe; I never met a goose with a lick of practical business sense. But who knows.

As to which bird gets to be in front, you'd probably guess it was the boss goose, but no. Ornithologists with a lot of time on their hands have followed flocks around for days to study this (whence the expression, "off on a wild goose chase"), and they report that the lead changes frequently, with juvenile geese often out front. You ask me, the bastards are doing it because they know it bugs us. I say we just ignore them.

I've always wondered where the wonderful American expression "Indian giver" originated. Is an Indian giver one who: (1) as an Indian, gives you something and then takes it back, (2) gives things to Indians, or (3) gives away Indians? Your insight is greatly appreciated. --Michael S. Walls, Jacksonville, Florida

This whole thing is so ironic it's an instant cure for pernicious anemia. "Indian" was once used by the white man as an all-purpose adjective signifying "bogus" or "false," owing to the supposedly low morals of the red man. Thus you had "Indian summer," false summer late in the year; "Indian corn" and "Indian tea," cheap substitutes for products the original colonists had known back in England; and "Indian giver," someone who gives you something and then takes it back. But of course the truth is that it was the Europeans who were the real Indian givers, repeatedly promising the Indians reservations by treaty and then stealing them back once valuable farmland or minerals were found. The term has thus inadvertently become an acid commentary on the character of its inventors. I think it's poetic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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