Brookfield Animal Hospital takes a moment to looks into the fall skies of Connecticut and marvels at the amazing science and beauty behind flocking birds.


Why Do Birds Flock Together?

Scan the morning or evening skies around Danbury or Fairfield at this time of year and you’re likely to see flocks of starlings doing a remarkable, coordinated, aerial dance. It’s as though a group of Ester Williams swimmers have taken to the heavens. The movement is called murmeration and birds do it in most part to protect themselves from predators.

Many Animals Possess the Ability To Flock, Including Humans!

Fish employ the same strategy and it is believed to exist on some level in all groups of animals, including humans, though it is likely that thousands of years of living out of the wild have desensitized us to the subtle signals we need to tune into in order to coordinate behavior so precisely.

Two-way Collective Communication

In an article on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, author Andrea Alfano makes a connection between flocking and a kid’s game. Many of you have played the telephone game where a message is whispered into a chain of ears. When it comes out the other side of twenty or so individuals, the message is usually very different from the one that started out at the beginning of the chain. Not so with flocks of birds. Birds (fish too) aren’t communicating with one individual, but five to seven others in close proximity, all at once, in all directions. Each is reading the subtle physical and/or vocals sounds of his or her nearest neighbor and reacting to it. The result is a flock of individuals both acting and reacting in nearly complete harmony. In some ways, flocks of animals are like a collective intelligence.

Benefits of Flocking

And what are they reacting too? Predators for one. Each member of the flock is another pair of eyes on their surroundings. As they react to potential predators so the others around them react and so on and so forth. The coordinated loops and adroit turns overload the sensors of predators that need to focus and lock onto one indivual in order to make a kill. These flocks are like the swish of a matador’s cape or magician’s slight of hand. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Watch the common Yellow Throat migrate across the U.S. in this interactive map by the Cornell Bird Lab.  Includes loads of easy-to-read information on flocking.

Geese Formations:  Collective steps to find food, protection and relief from so much flying

Geese formations are reacting to potential food sources on the ground below, predators, and changes in wind speed, air current and so forth. They, like starlings, are reacting collectively, not necessarily off of the lead goose. Geese formations also have the added benefit of increasing lift for every member of the flock flying behind the lead goose. Cornell has estimated that geese formations save geese approximately 70% more energy than they would otherwise spend if they flew out of formation.

Flocks of Robots?

Humans are studying both fish and bird flocks to understand how animals coordinate their efforts so precisely and applying it to swarm robotics. In the future mankind may command ‘flocks’ or ‘schools’ of micro-robots that coordinate efforts inside our bodies or work in harmony to explore risky disaster areas for signs of life or distress. More sinisterly, swarms of robots may be deployed in war, on land, sea and air.

In the meantime, let’s take a moment to look up and marvel at the extraordinary abilities of living creatures, and perhaps reflect on what resources lie dormant within ourselves. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we too could be so attuned to the unspoken messages of our neighbors and soar together so beautifully?