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Pigeons Follow the Leader To Assemble In V Formations

Nov 27, 2015 04:08 PM EST

Researchers from the University of Oxford are revealing some new insight on homing pigeons – specifically why some birds get to lead the V formation when traveling as a flock.

For their study, researchers used sensor technology and GPS loggers to investigate how pigeon flocks are coordinated. This allowed for precise tracking of their overall routes and reactions to each other while flying as a flock, according to a news release. Researchers then compared the pigeons' relative influence over flock direction to their solo flight characteristics.

While previous studies found flock leadership is unrelated to social dominance and training, the recent study provided a much simpler explanation for how spatial knowledge is generated and retained in navigating flocks: a pigeon's degree of leadership could be predicted by its speed in earlier flights. 

"This changes our understanding of how the flocks are structured and why flocks of this species have consistent leadership hierarchies," Dr. Dora Biro, one of the study researchers from the Department of Zoology at Oxford, said in the release. 

Researchers opted to study homing pigeons because they are domestic and easier to study than most other birds traveling in flocks. 

"We can control the composition of the flocks and the starting points for their homeward journeys," Benjamin Pettit, first author of the recent study, added in the university's release. "We also have a good understanding of their individual spatial cognition, in particular how their homing routes develop over repeated flights in the same area."

To get a better idea of a homing pigeon's ability to forage a straight path, the birds were tested in both solo and flock flights. This revealed leaders are able to learn straighter homing routes than followers after a series of flock flights. (Scroll to read more...)

"Some birds are naturally faster and consistently get to the front, where they end up doing more of the navigation, which means on future flights they know the way better," Biro explained. "You can compare this to a 'passenger-driver'-like effect: drivers in a car have to pay attention while passengers are often unable to recall the route they were driven along, especially if they remained passive in the navigation process."

Their findings suggests leadership can arise as an unavoidable consequence of individual differences within a population, and leaders can improve their roles over time while setting a better example for others to follow. 

"Our findings broaden the range of species and situations in which we would expect to see leadership and explain how leadership and competence can naturally come to correlate," Pettit concluded. 

Thier study was recently published in the journal Current Biology

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