Birds of different feathers flock together

Different sized birds follow the same rules when flying in flocks, likely to save energy.

A flock of Dunlin (Calidris alpina). Image credit: Aaron Corcoran (CC BY 4.0)

Birds often fly in flocks ranging from very structured V-formations to unstructured clusters. Many studies have tried to prove what causes birds to flock and how it benefits them. Flocks, for example, may help birds to avoid predators and to navigate. Flying in a V-shaped formation likely also gives aerodynamic benefits that can make it easier to fly long distances.

Few studies, however, have measured how the positions of birds in a flock relate to things like flying speed or the frequency of wing flaps. This is because it was difficult to take such measurements in large flocks of moving birds. Advances in cameras and computers are now making it easier to track individual birds flying in large flocks. The technology allows scientists to measure how birds position themselves in relation to other birds, or how flock-positioning varies by bird size, species, ecology, and behaviors. Such measurements may help scientists better understand why and how birds flock.

Corcoran and Hedrick now show that four different types of shorebirds position themselves in the same way when flying in a flock. In the experiments, digital cameras recorded video of 18 cluster-like flocks of four different species of birds flying over a bird sanctuary or agricultural fields. The flocks ranged in size from a hundred to a thousand birds. Some flocks had two types of bird. The four types of birds – dunlin, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, and marbled godwit – live in similar environments but greatly vary in size and fly at different speeds. Corcoran and Hedrick measured individual bird positions using three-dimensional computer reconstructions of the flocks.

Each bird – regardless of size or species – most commonly flew about one wingspan to the side and between a half to one-and-a-half wingspans back from the bird in front of it. Birds flying in simple V-shaped formations follow similar rules. This suggests that birds flying in clusters may also gain aerodynamic benefits.