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How do large swarms of birds fly in looping and dipping patterns and stay in complete harmony?

Sent in by Leland M. Sonnier, Louisiana

The act of any groups of animals swarming together in unison appearing as one multi-individual creature is a behavioural process known as 'allelomimesis'. In wild bird populations, such gathering can often number thousands, even millions of birds!

'Allelo' (Ancient Greek) describes mutual relation to one another. 'Memesis' (also Greek) means imitation or mimicry. This is the tendency of an animal or other agent to imitate the actions of its immediate neighbours. As is seen with everything from herds of wild buffalo, shoals of fish and perhaps thee most famous avian sky dancers of all – starlings in their murmurations.

Recent scientific research has concluded that the way birds fly with 'Red Arrow' precision without colliding with one another is by each individual tracking the movements of just seven of their nearest neighbours. This leads to a domino effect in which millions of birds can potentially co-ordinate themselves without accident.

A flock being pursued by a predator can dramatically expand or re group without collision. This never leaves an individual bird isolated from the group making predation all the more difficult.  Collision is avoided, as the cohesion does not depend on physical distance but rather their ability to track and interact with their immediate neighbours. This also highlights wild birds' incredible cognitive abilities.

The ecological factors which determine how and when many birds gather in a single flock include seasonal weather conditions, predator avoidance and increased vigilance for finding good feeding sites. Hence, this is particularly prevalent outside of the breeding season.


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