Flock leaders have the need for speed

The leader of the flock is essentially learning on the job as they fly (Simon Wong / 3 News)
The leader of the flock is essentially learning on the job as they fly (Simon Wong / 3 News)

The migration of birds is perhaps the biggest game of follow the leader in the animal kingdom, but have you ever wondered how they pick the one to follow?

Is it because they're master navigators? Is it because they've got more experience? Or is it perhaps because they're socially dominant amongst the flock?

The answer is apparently simpler than that, researchers say. They're just the fastest.

Birds can travel in flocks thousands of kilometres across the world and reach the same place for breeding or wintering each year.

And to get a better idea of how such an important behaviour works, researchers from the University of Oxford studied homing pigeons and say it changes the understanding of how flocks are structured.

Previous studies had ruled out social dominance as a factor in being the head of the flock and extra flight training didn't help promote them to leader either. Instead, the researchers say the answer is "elegantly simple".

"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," Dr Dora Biro says.

"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."

Homing pigeons were used to study the flock mentality because they're domestic, are easier to study and certain variables such as flock size can be controlled.

"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," author Benjamin Pettit says.

New sensor technology, including GPS loggers, has given researchers accurate information about the overall route as well as the sub-second time delays they react to each other in a flock.

The study compared pigeons' relative influence over flock direction compared to their solo flight characteristics and they found they could predict the leader by speed in earlier flights.

On solo flights, the birds "didn't excel at navigation ability", but on unaccompanied flights after leading the flock they learned straighter homing routes than followers.

The researchers say the findings come as a reminder leadership can be an "unavoidable consequence of individual differences within a population".

The results of the study were published in Current Biology today.

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