The Northern bald ibis is a migratory bird that stretches across parts of Europe and Africa. The birds can live as north as Germany. Many Northern bald ibis live in Morocco and migrate each year to Syria. Some Turkish Muslims venerate the bird because it migrates towards Mecca. Fossils of the Northern bald ibis date back 1.8 million years. The akh hieroglyph depicts the Northern bald ibis perfectly. Its black feathers contrast its bald red face, with a narrow downward-curving beak. A few long feathers jut out of the back of its head. Its call is a gentle staccato trill. This is a bird that lives on the edges of a cliff, that once went extinct in Europe because of how tasty it is (can’t confirm).
When migrating, Northern bald ibis flocks can number to a hundred. Like many bird species, the Northern bald ibis migrates in a classic V formation, known as an echelon. Bernard Voelkl and colleagues have studied them for years as their species faces extinction. As they explain, while migration is common in birds it’s also costly. Traveling long distances is difficult and potentially fatal. But many birds of reasonable size travel in formation like the ibis does. Voelkl et al’s research contributes to our understanding of why.
When a bird flies, the tips of its wings create a small vortex that juts out away from it. Each tiny vortex creates an upward lift that’s known as an up-wash. Another bird that sits in this up-wash finds their flight a little easier than the bird ahead. In this way, these birds enjoy the fruits of the lead bird’s labor. The up-wash helps the trailing birds rest a bit and conserve energy for their long flight. The birds in back often rotate with the ones in the lead, often without circumstance and in less than a second. There’s no signup sheet for the role of front-bird. They use no chore calendar or repeating schedule. The achievement of their great distances is often possible only through reciprocal cooperation. Over the past few years, I’ve found a new respect for the geese and other birds that fly overhead in formation.
The study that I referenced earlier sought to understand how they reform their formation. Why do the birds volunteer to be in front? Wouldn’t one benefit more if it always lagged behind another bird in front? Researchers describe one possible explanation for this as, “the selfish gene.” Animals that survive long enough to produce offspring will pass their DNA on to a new generation. An organism that does not reproduce, in effect, ends their lineage and their DNA dies with them. But the selfish gene allows that an organism might help another if they had some genetic relation. An organism that helps their relatives may still benefit because at least a part of their DNA lives on in others. Voelkl and colleagues tested this hypothesis with the Northern bald ibis. Is this why they trade spots in the rotation? In fact, they found no link between reciprocal cooperation and relatedness among members of the flock. Even at a cost to themselves, the birds share the burden with each other. Perhaps they do this because it improves the overall chances of their species’ survival. Perhaps they know they each have a greater chance of survival when they share the burdens of being in front.
we are in flight
Many people think of the fight for racial equity as a fight for survival. Others describe it as a journey one takes, where the trek is both individual and collective. Birds, like us, travel thousands of miles together in an act of mutual preservation. Sometimes we as organizers for antiracism need to take a step back and do the work in a different way. That’s an opportunity for others to step up and lead the way for a while. I’ve changed my proximity to various responsibilities over the past few years. Those moves allowed me to take a breath and relieve the stress I felt in certain spaces. I also found new chances to engage with antiracism in different ways. When I move on, I invite others to build their nests where mine once stood. Bring new attention to the way things have always been. When others are tired, I step in and share their burden. Speak up when they don’t. Learn what’s important to them and add my voice to their concerns.
I keep in mind that when we fly, we fly together.