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Leading the Flock- Let the Best Bird Lead

July 16, 2010

When you see a flock of birds, do you ever wonder why they fly in groups, do they fly randomly or do they have a leader? Who chooses their leader and why do they follow? How fast are their responses when they change directions? There can be many more questions and answers are difficult to get. To answer some of these questions and understand dynamics of bird flocks, a group of scientists in Budapest and Oxford studied the flock of pigeons and they found some interesting results which was published in Nature in April 2010 . They found that the flock of pigeons do have a leader and they follow a chain of command, a hierarchy, while flying or in other words they do follow a pecking order.“A pecking order tends to be just that — a pecking order,” says Iain Couzin of Princeton University, an expert in collective behavior[Wired

In order to do so, the scientists used a tiny GPS  weighing about 16g which could monitor their flight and sent out response every fifth of a second. Flock of pigeons (8-10 in number) were tied with this GPS and their flight was monitored- homing flights when they return back to their homes from a distance of about 14 kms, free spontaneous flights near their homes and individual solo flights of about 15 kms.

Analysing the data showed that the flock had one leader followed by 3-4 followers. These followers were in turn followed by other birds, implying that each bird was interacting with their immediate neighbor and the flight information was passed on from the flock leader step by step to rest of the flock members. The response time of the birds to their leader was close to 1/3rd of a second. Also, the result showed that the best solo flier or the the bird with the best flight skills was the leader– merit based system. But this order is not very strict or rigid. From time to time, other birds do take the lead and share the burden. In the video below, even though the bird marked red is not the fastest one, but it’s leading the flock and guiding their flight back home (yellow one too seems to be the co-leader of the flock).

“There wasn’t a single leader, nor was there a kind of egalitarian decision-making where everyone had an equal vote. Instead, each bird did have a vote, but the weight that each vote carried differed between birds.

 “It represented a kind of hierarchy where the decisions of some birds near the top of the hierarchy carried more weight in terms of what the birds did than the birds lower down the hierarchy, who were still influential but to a lesser degree,” said Dr Biro, who carried out the study with Tamás Vicsek of Eötvös University in Budapest. [Independent ]

Another interesting fact found was that the pigeons always stay on the right of their leader. This allows them to look at their leader from their left eye and thereby information from the left eye is processed by the right part of the brain. Human as well as pigeon brains are assymteric in nature and right part of the brain has the ability of recognition and that helps pigeons in recognizing other pigeons and thereby respond and coordinate better.

Can these results be extended to larger flocks of birds or to other animals who exihibit collective beahvior? Researchers will be trying to answer these questions in coming years.

Reference Article: Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks: Nagy M et al., Nature April 2010 doi:10.1038/nature08891

Picture credit: Flickr user foxypar4 | Used under Creative Commons License

Filed under: Research,Science

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