Mystery of fascinating starling flock formations explained

Aug 19, 2014

The dynamic and changing silhouettes formed by flocks of starlings is a natural wonder enjoyed by ornithologists, but little understood. Now a team of researchers at the UK's University of Warwick have come up with an explanation. Video: Reuters

The acrobatic swirls made by flocks of starlings have long puzzled bird experts.

But now scientists at the UK's University of Warwick say they have firgured out how and why they form.

Studying video footage, lead researcher Daniel Pearce noticed that areas of light were always visible through the flock. His view - that the changing patterns of light and dark are crucial to flock movement, giving individual birds vital information on their environment.

Pearce developed an algorithm-based computer model of individual birds with simulated intelligence. With each bird attracted to areas containing most visual information the result was a cohesive swarm.

The pattern of dark and light is created by birds altering the positions and angles at which they fly.

As the flock is always marginally opaque, individual birds can spot a predator and the responses to it of other birds, allowing each to escape and regroup.

The research could potentially help create algorithms that move thousands of robot drones in formation.

Until now it was assumed that flock co-ordination happened through birds interacting with just their immediate neighbours.

The group says knowledge that the pack works by birds monitoring their colleagues collectively marks a paradigm shift in bird flock understanding.


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