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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas