We’ve all seen flocks of birds wheeling and swooping in unison, as if choreographed. How do they do this? Zoologists say they aren’t simply following a leader, or their neighbors. If they were, the reaction time of each bird would need to be very fast – faster than birds actually do react, according to scientists who have studied the reaction times of individual birds in laboratory settings. The classic research on how flocking birds move in unison comes from zoologist Wayne Potts, who published in the journal Nature in 1984. His work showed that bird in flocks don’t just follow a leader, or their neighbors. Instead, they anticipate sudden changes in the flock’s direction of motion.
And he said, once a change in direction begins in the flock, it then “spreads through the flock in a wave.”
The propagation of this maneuver wave, as he called it, begins relatively slowly but can reach speeds three times faster than would be possible if birds were simply reacting to their immediate neighbors. Potts called this ability among flocking birds the chorus line hypothesis. That is, he said, birds are like dancers who see an approaching leg kick when it’s still down the line, and anticipate what to do. He said:
These propagation speeds appear to be achieved in much the same way as they are in a human chorus line: individuals observe the approaching maneuver wave and time their own execution to coincide with its arrival.
Potts used high-speed film – and a frame-by-frame analysis – of flocks of red-backed sandpipers (Calidris alpina) to conduct his study. He found that the flock typically responded only to birds that banked into the flock, rather than away from it.
That makes sense, since flocking among birds serves the purpose of protecting birds from predators (although there are other purposes as well; for example, when one bird finds food, others in a flock eat, too). Individual birds, those who are separated from the flock, are more likely to be picked off by predators.
Bottom line: According to Wayne Potts, a zoologist who published in the journal Nature in 1984, birds in flocks are able to change direction quickly not just because they are following a leader, or their neighbors, but because they see a movement far down the line and anticipate what to do next. Potts called this the chorus-line hypothesis for bird movement.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.