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, one that they say could have major implications in the field of drone robotics. Jim Drury reports.
STORY: 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. SOUNDBITE (English) DANIEL PEARCE, LEAD RESEARCHER OF STARLING STUDY AT UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, SAYING: "Essentially every bird in these flocks has the same set of information and the same set of behaviours and when you put them all together they form a flock, so it's like lots of individuals independently choosing to behave in a way that from the outside looks like a very organised structure, but it's actually lots of individuals doing the same thing at the same time." 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. SOUNDBITE (English) DANIEL PEARCE, LEAD RESEARCHER OF STARLING STUDY AT UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, SAYING: "Every one of these little blue arrows is responding to our model, in which they try to maximise the information that's in their view, and this red arrow is a predator that we've added to the simulation, trying to split up the flock." 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. SOUNDBITE (English) DANIEL PEARCE, LEAD RESEARCHER OF STARLING STUDY AT UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, SAYING: "We may be able to write our own algorithm for how drones work, but if we fully understand how birds achieve the same thing their algorithm may be far more efficient because they've developed it over thousands of years and evolved it." 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.