From the dive bombing of an angry hummingbird to the placid motion of a flock of Canadian geese in the sky, birds move themselves into and out of our lives every day. Their movements are sometimes graceful and sometimes downright funny. Think of the mallard duck, with its rear end wobbling as it dabbles in the duck pond. For some reason, I always find that amusing.
But it’s the group think of birds that really intrigues me. When I watch birds in the sky, moving together in a flock, I’m constantly amazed by their ability to move as one. Heck, I can barely walk across a room straight by myself, let alone in unison with others. Let’s just say that dance class and I didn’t get along.
Birds move together for a good reason. Although they may flock to find food, the rapid motion of a flock of birds often happens because they’re responding to the presence or possible presence of a predator. Just like herds of caribou, birds flock to make it harder for the predators to eat them.
But while flocks might come together for practical purposes, the graceful motion of a flock of birds in the sky is downright amazing to watch. It looks like a dance, one that they’ve practiced for years. When people coordinate a flash mob, it takes lots of time on Facebook and Twitter to arrange it. When birds and fish do it, it’s as if they’re telepathic, merging and moving through the sky as one.
When you’re watching birds in flight, you’re watching emergent behavior in action. Similar to people in cars on a freeway, these birds wheel and dive in response to the movements of the birds around them. The glorious aerial displays of birds as they move together occur as each individual bird engages in quiet, moment to moment decisions about where to move, based on what other birds are doing.
Movement travels along a flock of birds in a wave motion, like people doing the wave at a game. A bird decides to move. The first birds close by may take a split second to follow. The ones near the tail end of the flock see the wave coming, and they catch on more quickly.
Flocking behavior is the darling of computer modelers, who love to play with random motion that triggers nonrandom reactions. But mostly, it’s just really cool to watch. In that vein, here’s a video to put some awe into your day, and to inspire you to improve your dance skills!