Dear Bird Folks:
Last week I took a few vacation days and went to Boston. While looking out my hotel
window, I noticed a flock of pigeons flying above the park across the street. I watched these
pigeons for quite a long time as they flew in a tight formation, whirling around back and
forth, with apparently no purpose. It was as if the flock had lost its leader. Could this flock
have been without a leader or was it simply lost?
Let's See Sharon,
Boston has several outstanding museums, endless shops to explore, centuries of local
history, way too yummy restaurants, not to mention Whitey Bulger hiding under every
parked car. And you say you spent "quite a long time" watching pigeons fly in circles. Even I
take a break from staring at birds once in a while. But I guess I should be supportive, so let's
take a look at your question.
First, no, your pigeons weren't lost. When you are in a major city and see pigeons hanging
out in a park, there is little chance they are lost. These are the birds from the 'hood and are
very much at home. Now, if you were on the top of, say, Mount Washington and saw a flock
of pigeons whirling in circles, you would have a case for them being lost. If you did see a
flock of pigeons on top of Mount Washington it would probably be made up of entirely male
birds, since the males would rather fly in circles than ask for directions, and be proud of it.
Secondly, no, the birds you saw hadn't lost their leader, because they never had a leader to
begin with. Most flocking birds, which appear to move in the effortless synchronization of
the Rockettes, amazingly have no leader at all. They don't even have a shop steward or a
bench coach. A flock of birds often moves like a rolling water balloon. It is constantly
changing shape, with one edge passing the other. The front bird is not the leader, it just
happens to be in the front. Then, as the flock shifts and changes shape, other birds become
the front birds. If there is no leader, how does the flock know when to turn or where to go?
That's a tough question to answer. Much like fish in a school, it appears that each
individual bird is ultra sensitive to the movements of its fellow flockmates. They are able to
respond instantly to the reactions of other birds. Remember, birds don't flock together to be
sociable, they flock together to find food, to find shelter, to survive. Being in a flock has
huge advantages. One of the biggest advantages is protection. Many more pairs of eyes are
able to detect danger much sooner. If danger is spotted, the flock and the birds that are in it,
without a leader and without rehearsal, all react the exact same way. If attacked, a flying
flock of birds will ball up, creating a tight formation, that makes it difficult for a hawk to
select an individual bird to pick off. The risk of injury prevents the hawk from diving
headlong into the middle of the tightened flock. One time I watched a hawk chase a flock of
about thirty starlings across the open sky. Suddenly the starlings, without any leader and in
perfect unison, plunged straight down towards a telephone pole. The panicked birds hid
behind the power transformer and the mass of wires, where the frustrated hawk couldn't
reach them. By responding as a unit, all of the starlings survived, which is good news for
me, considering how much expensive suet starlings eat.
The pigeons you saw in Boston Sharon weren't lost and they don't need a leader. We can
only guess why the flock was flying the way it was on that particular day. More than likely
they were either searching for food or water, trying to find a place to roost or perhaps,
looking for Whitey Bulger.