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Decision-Making in Bird Flocks – Some Individuals Lead, but All Have a Vote

StarlingsWho hasn’t marveled at the way bird flocks seem to move as a single organism? Groups ranging in size from a dozen Zebra Finches to millions of Budgerigars change direction with astonishing fluidity and speed, confusing predators and leaving observers to wonder just  how they mange to accomplish such feats.

Flexible Leadership

While birding in deserts, grasslands and other open habitats that allowed long, clear views of large flocks, I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to determine if it was a single leader “calling the shots” or some sort of unobservable group dynamics at work.

Recently, researchers at Oxford and Eotvos Universities have provided part of the answer, at least where pigeons are concerned.  Research published in the April, 2010 edition of the journal Nature, establishes that pigeons use flexible hierarchy system to make group decisions (direction of travel, choice of feeding site, etc.). 

“Avian Democracy”

Quelea FlockWhile certain members of the flock are more likely to lead than others, each individual’s role can change over time, and even the lowest ranking birds have some “say” in the decision-making process.  This system of flexible, layered leadership seems to work very well for pigeons, and may be utilized by other flock-traveling species as well.

Further research will attempt to discover how and why the flock gives greater weight to the input of one bird over another; for example, is an individual’s role based upon experience, proven navigation skills, aggression or other qualities?

Further Reading

Pigeons are useful models for studying bird behavior and biology; recent work at Keio University has revealed that the self-recognition abilities of pigeons exceed those of the average 3-year-old child!

An interesting video on flock dynamics is posted here.


Red billed Quelea Flock image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Alastair Rae and Sabine’s Sunbird

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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