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How a Flock of 400 Flying Birds Manages to Turn in Just Half a Second

Get the new issue. Recent posts Inside the walls of Corfe Castle Why do some geysers erupt regularly? The science of your skin What are genetically modified organisms GMOs? A small, dark goose - the same size as a mallard. It has a black head and neck and grey-brown back. There's so much to see and hear at Minsmere, from rare birds and otters to stunning woodland and coastal scenery. Explore the little pools of amazing sea life that are left by the tide on the rocks around our coast.

How do birds manage to fly so closely together without colliding, and what are the benefits of doing so?

Murder mystery: The reason why 6, crows flock to Burnaby every night

At this time of year, our skies can be compared to Heathrow Airport on a busy day as flocks of birds arrive from and depart to warmer climes. But how do they manage to fly so closely together without colliding? And what are the benefits of doing so - in the air and on the ground? First, a bit of Ancient Greek for you: the act of any groups of animals coming together in unison is technically known as allelomimesis. And in wild bird populations such gatherings can often number thousands or even - incredibly - millions of birds! The Greek word 'allelo' describes mutual relation to one another, and 'memesis' also Greek denotes imitation or mimicry.

In short, birds will often copy the actions of their immediate neighbours. They want to keep up with the Joneses too!


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  • A larger group of birds boasts a much better chance of spotting a predator, or other potential threat, than a single bird has. A group of birds may also be able to confuse or overwhelm a predator through 'mobbing' when birds attack or chase a would-be predator, to drive it away or agile flight. Staying in a flock presents a predator with more possible targets too, which lowers the danger for any single bird.

    Birds do not engage in any behaviour that does not bring them a benefit for survival in some way. Feeding in a group also gives more birds the opportunity to find a food source that one bird has already located. But, at the same time, groups of birds can take advantage of the benefits of being part of a close-knit group to protect themselves and their vulnerable chicks against predators.

    When a predator approaches a flock, all the individuals in the group move toward the safest place—namely, the middle of the group—in order to reduce the chances of being captured. Observations of juvenile shorebirds have hinted that it may take them a while to get the hang of this, because they learn to form cohesive congregations only over time. As they do, natural selection dictates that the birds least able to hang with the group are most likely to be caught by predators.

    Self-interest by itself may explain many of the observed dynamics of flock motion, such as density. How, then, can they possibly know what direction to move in to avoid it?

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    One clue came from studies of fish. In the s a Russian biologist, Dmitrii Radakov, tested schools and found that they can successfully avoid predators, as a whole, if each fish simply coordinates its movements with those of its neighbors. Unlike linear flocks of geese, which do have a clear leader, clusters are democratic. They function from the grassroots; any member can initiate a movement that others will follow.

    It turns out that only three simple rules suffice to form tightly cohesive groups. Each animal needs to avoid colliding with its immediate neighbors, to be generally attracted to others of its kind, and to move in the same direction as the rest of the group. They change density, alter their shape, and turn on a dime—just as real-world birds do. The makers of movies, from The Lion King to Finding Nemo, have used similar software to depict realistic-looking movements in large groups—whether stampeding wildebeest or drifting jellyfish.

    By making movies of their flocks and analyzing, frame by frame, how each individual bird moved, he was able to show that a turn ripples through a flock just as a cheerleading wave passes through sports fans at a stadium. This finding put to rest the old telepathy idea. Every year flocks of many thousands of starlings winter at large roosts in Rome. Thousands coalesce and form dense spheres, ellipses, columns, and undulating lines, sequentially changing the shape of their flocks within moments. They exasperate many residents, who tire of the droppings they leave behind.

    Others love their elaborate displays.

    Why do birds flock together?

    Some researchers had previously used high-speed stereoscopic photography to analyze the structure of the whole, but they were able to do so only with relatively small groups. Once a flock exceeded 20 to 30 birds, its structure became impossible to tease apart. By using software borrowed from the field of statistical mechanics, which explains properties of materials by examining their molecular structure, Cavagna and other physicists have now been able to match up to 2, starlings in different photographs with one another.

    That allows them to map the three-dimensional structure of flocks much more precisely than has ever been possible before.

    Onscreen, they can take what appears to the human eye as a solid, rounded mass of birds and learn whether it is in fact a ball or rather some other more complicated shape, such as a pancake, a column, or an open cup. They can view it from any angle, and watch it alter shape at 10 frames per second. The result has been an infusion of quantifiable observation into a field long rife with speculation.

    By zooming in on the three-dimensional reconstructions, the researchers can begin to understand the spatial relationships individual starlings within it have with one another.