Revealed: the mechanism that allows birds of a feather to flock together - Nature - Environment - The Independent

Revealed: the mechanism that allows birds of a feather to flock together

Pigeons loaded with GPS backpacks show the secrets of co-ordinated flight control

A A A

Anyone interested in the democratic process could do worse than study the group decisions made by pigeons in mid-flight. Scientists have discovered that pigeon flocks are governed by a kind of "democratic hierarchy" that makes sure everyone flies in the same direction.

With the help of tiny GPS backpacks carried by each member of a loft of pigeons, researchers have discovered how large numbers of animals are able to instantly co-ordinate their movements to ensure that they do things as a group rather than as anarchic individuals.

Although the principle has so far only been demonstrated with a smallish flock of Hungarian pigeons, the scientists believe it could also operate on much bigger groups of animals, such as schools of fish and herds of wild buffalo, and might even explain how close-knit groups of people, such as juries, manage to reach a single decision.

"Anyone who has seen flocks of birds or schools of fish is familiar with this phenomenon of large numbers of individuals in a fast-moving group appearing to move in a co-ordinated way, and it's not immediately clear how they coordinate themselves," said Dora Biro, a zoologist at Oxford University.

"Our question was, how do groups like flocks of pigeons make decisions about what to do and where to go?" Dr Biro said.

The GPS backpacks carried by the pigeons enabled the scientists to precisely monitor the birds' movements, relative to each other, every 0.2 seconds of their journey from the point where the scientists released them to their home loft in Budapest, 15km away.

"Previously, people had assumed democratic decisions, where every bird's preferences are somehow averaged out, and that's what the group ends up doing. Or there might be a single leader or a small number of leaders that everyone follows," Dr Biro said.

"But what we were able to do by tracking these birds with individual GPS units was to resolve the leader-follower relationship within the flock. What we found was a more sophisticated and refined mechanism for how the decisions are made," she said.

"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.

"Whether such effects come from some individuals being more motivated to lead, or being inherently better navigators perhaps with greater navigational knowledge, is an intriguing question we don't yet have an answer to," Dr Biro said.

The loft of pigeons in the study consisted of 10 birds whose every movement was recorded as they flew in a flock from one location to another. The analysis, published in the journal Nature, described how each bird moved in relation to its neighbours, with some individuals leading more than others.

"It's neither a completely democratic system, where everybody gets the vote, nor [one with] a single leader or a few leaders responsible for the decisions. But in fact every individual gets a kind of input into what the group as a whole should do," Dr Biro said.

"If this was honed by evolution, if there was a selective advantage for individuals in the group to make decisions in this way, then it might represent a particularly efficient form of group decision making... It is possible that the mechanism we saw in these pigeons generalises to other species and to other group decision-making contexts, even in humans," Dr Biro said.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skies as 007 for first time
Sport
footballThe latest scores and news from Dortmund vs Arsenal and Liverpool vs Ludogorets
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
Life and Style
techCriminals now targeting e-readers
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Life and Style
fashion
Travel
news This video may make you think twice about ever taking the Tube again
Life and Style
A spider is seen in its web on September 16, 2014 in Hohen Meissner, Germany.
tech The 'Spider in Da House' app has been developed by scientists to tackle arachnophobia
Life and Style
fashionIncredibly, it hasn't been branded 'Will.eye.am'
News
A plane flies close to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano
newsAnd yes, it's quite something
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week