The new findings offer an elegantly simple explanation for the phenomenon of leadership in birds, with important implications for how spatial knowledge is generated and retained in navigating flocks.
In the study, the researchers compared pigeons' relative influence over flock direction to their solo flight characteristics. Their studies showed that a pigeon's degree of leadership could be predicted by its speed in earlier flights.
While many birds travel in flocks, homing pigeons are domestic and more easily studied than most. Recent developments in sensor technology also make it possible to explore how pigeon flocks are coordinated.
The latest GPS loggers allow the researchers to track not only the birds' overall routes, but also the sub-second time delays with which they react to each other while flying as a flock.
In solo flights, leaders didn't excel in navigation ability. When the researchers tested the birds individually after a series of flock flights, however, they found that leaders had learned straighter homing routes than followers.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.


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