1729: Migrating Geese
Title text: "Hey guys! I have a great idea for a migration!" "Dammit, Kevin."
Migrating refers to the changing of a habitat, which happens every year with birds like geese that travel long distances to avoid cold seasons and get back to the food in the summer time. When geese fly to their new habitat, they tend to fly in a very clear V formation. The V formation improves the efficiency of flying birds, particularly over long migratory routes. All the birds except the first fly in the upwash from one of the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead. The upwash assists each bird except for the "leading" one in supporting its own weight in flight, saving them up to 20% of the energy needed.
It should be noted that geese do have family structures with adult geese in "alpha" positions, but not a strict ranking order. An individual's position in formation flights is coincidental and constantly changing, so that the goose at the point of the formation can pull back and rest in the V wings while others "lead" the swarm. Popular earlier beliefs about an "alpha goose" heading a formation for the entire flight is a myth, easily disproved by watching geese formations in flight.
This comic shows such a formation with 20 geese, with several geese and areas in the V formation labeled, giving different roles to the geese and assigning these areas a new meaning. See the table below.
Apart from a "twin engine" goose in the bottom right arm of the V the only part of the formation that would not normally be seen is Kevin, who flies off at a 45-degree angle. In that direction there is no aerodynamic help from the other birds, and in the title text the rest of the geese also exclaim, "Dammit, Kevin" when he (again?) tells them that he has a great new idea for a migration (maybe referring to the new direction). This is either a reference to the fact that migrating birds manage to consistently arrive in the same general area every year, or to the way that vacations are sometimes suggested (by humans): "I thought of an idea for a vacation..." This was only the second time the name Kevin was used in xkcd for a fictive person, see more in this trivia.
Table of labels
(4th in line to the British throne)
|Supposedly, this goose is in line to become the newest monarch of the United Kingdom after the deaths of the three (humans) who were ahead of it at the time of the comic’s publication (Charles, Prince of Wales; William, Duke of Cambridge; Prince George of Cambridge). In actuality the fourth in line to the British throne was then Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. As of the death of the Queen, in 2022, she gained one place and the new fourth in line became Prince Louis of Wales (her younger brother).
In North America, the best-known goose migration is that of Canada geese to the US east coast. Canada used to be part of the British Empire and remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, so a "Canadian" goose would be well situated to stand within the succession (excepting, of course, for the fact that it's a goose). As the main rules of succession to the British throne are being Protestant and directly related to Sophia of Hanover, who died in 1714, the line of succession is long. Very long. Though there probably aren't any geese in that list (even Catholic ones), the head goose being deemed the fourth in line (or the fourth in line being deemed a head goose) may be mocking the concept of the line of succession and/or any perception of the arbitrary nature of its membership.
|Quarterback||A quarterback is a position in American football, usually placed in the second row of an American football formation, just like the associated goose. On nearly every non-kicking play, the quarterback is the player who stands behind the center and receives the ball to start the play. In modern American football, the quarterback is usually considered the leader of the team, and is often responsible for calling the play.|
|Comptroller||A comptroller is a position in many corporations and some governments. An officer of this title is responsible for the oversight of financial operations and ensuring that accounting is conducted accurately.|
|Migration abort goose||This might be a reference to launch abort capsules used in rockets to safely land astronauts in the case of a critical stage failure. Or it could be operated like an abort button aborting the entire migration for all geese.|
|Twin-Engine Model||This goose has two tails offset on each side of the center of the goose, instead of one tail in the middle like the rest. The "tails" also extend beyond the wings, which makes it look like a Twin-Engine aircraft, which has two motors: one on each wing instead of one in the nose. Later Randall made no less than eight plane/birds combination like this in 1824: Identification Chart.|
|CIA Informant||A person, usually a criminal, that surreptitiously provides information to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a foreign intelligence agency of the United States federal government. If these geese are from Canada, the CIA might have inserted an informant to be kept up to date on their activities. However, it is unlikely that the CIA would have great interest in the migratory patterns of geese.|
|Backups||These are geese that are not used in the formation so they can replace other geese in their positions in case they have problems performing their task. This may also be a pun/joke about technology/data "migrations" where backups should be taken liberally due to risk of data loss.|
|Shock Front||A shock front is the front boundary of a shock wave created by either a sonic boom or another explosion in a fluid/gas. It can also refer to the shock wave itself. A V-shaped shock-wave called a 'bow shock', similar in appearance to the V-shaped goose formation, is generated by a supersonic object. Since geese fly subsonically in normal circumstances , they do not generate a shock wave. But of course, this set of geese may be somewhat different considering the involvement of CIA and stealth technology.|
|Missing Valence Geese||In Chemistry, valence electrons are the electrons in the outermost "layer" which change places when chemical reactions happen. As there is an optimal number of electrons in a layer, if there are missing valence electrons, atoms which can fill in these gaps tend to react with the atoms having the missing electrons. In case of "electron sharing" (aka covalent bond) molecules result from such an encounter. The comic suggests a second geese formation that has proper "valence geese" in the appropriate position could bond (=merge) with this one into a larger formation. A normal geese V formation like the one in the comic has one side longer than the other and this is possibly Randall's explanation for the phenomenon.
In reality, geese do form V-shaped flocks, since the rear geese can profit aerodynamically from the vortices created by the front geese, and that way the overall flock requires less energy. So there is actually some evolutionary sense for additional geese to fill the "valence holes". It is thus a little weird that there are two backup geese close to these valence vacancies, as they should then have filled them up...
|Stealth cargo being escorted||The formation is forming a protective surrounding around an empty space in the middle which in a military formation could contain protected cargo. As there is no cargo visible in the geese formation, it is titled "stealth". This would be a nice conspiracy theory to spread.|
|Kevin||Also mentioned in the title text. It is unclear what the name refers to. It may refer to:
- [Caption above the panel:]
- Understanding Migration of Geese
- [20 geese are shown flying in a typical migratory V-formation. As they are shown in silhouette it is not possible to determine if they are seen from above or from below. They are flying toward the top of the image with the first goose close to the top in the middle of the image. There is one head goose, and then there are 7 geese in the left arms and 9 geese in the right arm. Behind the left arm there are two stragglers that are not in line with the others, but closer to the middle than those above and not as close to each other as the rest but still flying in the same direction. Finally there is one goose at the bottom right corner flying at a 45 degree angle away from the other to the right. The first goose is flapping its wing, which is also the case with six other geese, no. 4 and 6 in the left and 3, 5 and 6 in the right arm as well as the middle of the two in the rear towards the middle. The rest are soaring with straight wings and all of these look the same except no. 7 in the right arm which has two tails, which both goes ahead of the wings, making it look like a plane with two engines. The head goose and 5 of the 9 geese in the right arm as well as the one bottom right are labelled with and arrow pointing to them from the label. The front goose has the label in front to the left, the other have it in front to the right, except the second last in the arm which has the label inside the V and one flying away which has the label right above it. The two behind and right of the left arm have one label behind them with two arrows from the label pointing at both geese. There is a thick curvy line in front of geese no. 3 to 5 in the left arm. In front of that line is a thinner broken line. In front of this is a label written with the same curvature. There are two areas surrounded by dotted lines. The first one is behind the last of the left arms geese, extending in the same direction for a distance of about two geese. It has a label above and left with and arrow pointing to it. The other area is in the middle of the V forming a loose triangular structure with a label inside.]
- Head goose: Head goose (4th in line to the British throne)
- Right no. 1: Quarterback
- Right no. 3: Comptroller
- Right no. 5: Migration abort goose
- Right no. 7: Twin-engine model
- Right no. 8: CIA informant
- Bottom right corner: Kevin
- Behind center: Backups
- In front of left no. 3-5: Shock front
- Empty area behind left arm: Missing valence geese
- Empty area in center: Stealth cargo being escorted
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