Many species of birds fly in groups. A group of birds is called a flock or flight of birds. Birds are not the only animals to flock; other animals that practice flocking-type behaviors include fish, locusts and bacteria.
Types of Birds That Flock Together
While many birds practice flocking behaviors, not all of them do. Some birds permanently live in flocks while others congregate for specific events like breeding season. Commonly known birds that flock in a V-shape pattern include pelicans, geese, ibises, storks and waterfowl. Birds that form larger flocks include blackbirds, starlings, shorebirds, robins, flamingos, cranes and pigeons.
One of nature's most magnificent sights is a large flock of starlings in flight, known as a murmuration. Up to 100,000 starlings can be in a murmuration. Usually sighted in the early evening, these large flocks swoop and soar in highly elaborate shapes before they settle to roost.
During much of the time, sandhill cranes are found in smaller family groups or pairs. However, these birds famously form large flocks for migration. Each year, from mid-February to mid-April, between 400,000 and 600,000 sandhill cranes migrate to the central Platte River in Nebraska. The birds congregate for feeding before they head further north to their subarctic nesting grounds.
Robins tend to flock south for warmer weather and more food availability in winter. The distance robins migrate differs significantly. Some fly from Vancouver Island all the way to Guatemala, while robins that live in more temperate areas such as Baja California in Mexico don't typically migrate at all. The size of robin flocks varies from 10 to 50 birds, but large flocks can contain upwards of 60,000 robins.
Flamingos flock to find better feeding grounds. Every year between 30,000 and 40,000 (with a peak of 120,000 in April 2019) flamingos flock to feast on the blue-green algae that bloom in the mudflats of Thane Creek in Mumbai, India. Flamingos are highly social birds that are sighted in pairs, small flocks or large flocks with tens of thousands of birds.
Benefits of Flocking Behaviors
There are numerous benefits to flocking behaviors. The first is safety in numbers. Predators have a harder time catching adult or juvenile birds in the middle of a flock compared with a solo bird. In a flock, birds can fly in among each other and move around to potentially confuse the predator. Flocks of birds have also been known to attack or chase predators to scare them away; this is called mobbing.
Flocking may also help birds find food more efficiently. With more eyes on the lookout for food, there is a higher chance of birds finding it. In this way, flocking helps birds find food faster, giving them more time for grooming, resting, finding a mate and raising young.
Certain flocking formations, such as flying in a V shape, enhance aerodynamics. Increased aerodynamics means less energy used to fly. Aerodynamics is especially essential when flying long distances for migration. For birds that live in colder climates, flocking offers the added benefit of helping each other keep warm by sharing body heat.
Do Different Species of Birds Flock Together?
Yes! Different species of birds have been sighted flocking together. Isn't that cool? Flocks typically have what is called a nuclear or leader species that organizes the flocks' movement while the other species join in. Endangered species have been observed in mixed-species flocks, which may be beneficial to their survival.
In the Brazilian Atlantic forest, researchers found two types of mixed flocks: heterogenous canopy plus midstory flocks and understory flocks. Understory flocks were more vulnerable to forest fragmentation than the heterogenous flocks. The leader species of the understory flocks was the red-crowned ant-tanager, Habia rubica.
Coordination of Flying in Flocks
How exactly birds coordinate flying in flocks remains somewhat a mystery. Through studying starlings, researchers have found that the space between the birds is not uniform. Starlings appear to only require a good amount of space in front of them and can cope with others being near their sides, above them or below them. Researchers have also found that birds in a large flock do not follow a single leader in the flock.
A recent theory is that all living creatures, including birds, have a disembodied electromagnetic consciousness. This theory suggests that it is the sensitive reactions to these extremely low-frequency magnetic fields that help birds coordinate their flight patterns. This theory is somewhat coming back full circle from the theories of "natural telepathy" and "biological radios" in the 20th century, but with a bit more scientific backing from the world of quantum physics.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Bird ID Skills: Behavior
- Phys.org: Starling Murmurations: The Science Behind One of Nature's Greatest Displays
- ADDucation: List of Collective Nouns for Birds, Babies, Gender & Plurals
- The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: Why Birds Flock Together
- Biological Conservation: Mixed-Species Bird Flocks from Brazilian Atlantic Forest: The Effects of Forest Fragmentation and Seasonality on Their Size, Richness and Stability
- Harvard: Exploring Flocking Via Quantum Many-Body Physics Techniques
- Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine: Magnetic Correlates in Electromagnetic Consciousness
- Audubon Magazine: How a Flock of Birds Can Fly and Move Together
- British Ornithologists' Union: Birds of Many Feathers Flock Together
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Birds of North America: Sandhill Crane
- Smithsonian Magazine: 500,000 Cranes Are Headed for Nebraska in One of Earth’s Greatest Migrations
- Journey North: American Robin Migration
- Science: Why Birds Fly in a V Formation
- Smithsonian: Why Did Flamingos Flock to Mumbai in Record Numbers This Winter?
- San Diego Zoo: Flamingo
- Bird Flock image by DomTomCat from Fotolia.com