Study of starling flight reveals message from turning bird sweeps through flock at constant speed

July 28, 2014 by Bob Yirka report
bird flock

A team of researchers with members from several countries working together in Rome, Italy, has come up with a new explanation of how it is that starlings are able to fly in a flock in a way that makes them appear as a single organism. In their paper published in the journal Nature Physics, the team describes how they used high-speed cameras to capture and study flight movement by individual bird members and what they found as a result.

Starling flight is as mesmerizing as it is mystifying—flocks of hundreds or thousands of birds sweep across the sky as if a single organism. The birds flying over Rome in particular have captured the imagination of bird enthusiasts, tourists, film makers and scientists alike. How do individual birds know when to turn and which way? Some have suggested it's a random thing, each bird simply flies making sure not to run into a neighbor. Others have suggested that some birds initiate a turn and others follow, creating a diffusion effect. In this new study, the researchers suggest that none of the earlier theories is correct—they've come up with something brand new.

To get a better look at the birds in flight, the researchers recorded flocks flying over Rome with high speed cameras and then took the results into their lab for examination. They found that turns are almost always initiated by just a few birds, but rather than other birds trying to figure out where to turn too, they instead simply copy how sharply their neighbor turns. This allows for the turn message to propagate through the flock at a very fast constant speed—approximately 20 to 40 meters per second, the team calculated. That constant message transfer speed means that each bird in a flock can respond in as little as half a second, without causing the flock to break apart.

The video will load shortly

Perhaps even more interesting is that when the researchers applied a spin factor for the turns by the , they found that applying it to the as a whole allowed for use of the same mathematical equations as physicists use to describe . The researchers believe that's not a coincidence, as there are many examples of physics and math principles that apply to the natural world.

Explore further: The mystery behind starling flocks explained

More information: Nature Physics, DOI: 10.1038/NPHYS3035

Related Stories

Student designs drone to study starlings

March 27, 2014

( —Like something out of a science fiction movie, Scott Davis's remote controlled "octocopter" hovers above the ground and then soars over treetops, attracting the attention of onlookers who glance skyward.

Starling flocks fly like a single entity (w/ Video)

June 17, 2010

( -- An animal group such as a school of fish or a flock of starlings can seem like a single entity governed by a collective mind. A new mathematical analysis of flight dynamics in flocks of starlings suggest ...

Secrets of flocking revealed

October 26, 2011

Watching thousands of birds fly in a highly coordinated, yet leaderless, flock can be utterly baffling to humans. Now, new research is peeling back the layers of mystery to show how exactly they do it -- and why it might ...

How birds of different feathers flock together

March 7, 2013

( —New research from the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge reveals for the first time that, contrary to current models used to explain the movement of flocks, the differences between bird species and social ...

Recommended for you

New analysis of big data sheds light on cell functions

October 26, 2016

Researchers have developed a new way of obtaining useful information from big data in biology to better understand—and predict—what goes on inside a cell. Using genome-scale models, researchers were able to integrate ...

Study shows how giraffe assassin bugs outwit spider prey

October 26, 2016

(—A biologist at Macquarie University in Australia has discovered the secret behind the giraffe assassin's ability to catch and kill spiders in their webs. In his paper published on the open access site Royal Society ...

Structure of key DNA replication protein solved

October 25, 2016

A research team led by scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) has solved the three-dimensional structure of a key protein that helps damaged cellular DNA repair itself. Investigators say that knowing ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 28, 2014
Since I never thought there was a queen Starling leading the explanation seems not only obvious but also essentially the same as both of the explanations it dismissed at the beginning.

"Some have suggested it's a random thing, each bird simply flies making sure not to run into a neighbor. Others have suggested that some birds initiate a turn and others follow, creating a diffusion effect."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.