Starlings flocking are an astonishing thing to see – filmed by wild life cameraman and travel journalist Dylan Winter Near Oxford – England and at an RSPB reserve called Otmoor.
Like drivers on a freeway, starlings don’t appear to mind having neighbours nearby on their sides—or above and below, for that matter—as long as they have open space ahead. That makes sense, since the presence of a clear path in the direction of travel minimizes the likelihood of collisions should the birds need to shift their course abruptly, as is likely when a falcon attacks. But what’s really nifty about this spatial asymmetry is that the researchers have been able to use it to calculate the number of neighbours to which each starling pays close attention—a quantified elaboration of Pottss chorus line idea. By looking at correlations between the movements of neighbouring starlings, they can show that each bird always pays attention to the same number of neighbours, whether they’re closer or farther away. How many neighbours is that? Six or seven, says Cavagna, who points out that starlings in flocks can almost always see many more nearby birds— but the number may be closely tied to birds cognitive ability.
The direction of the flock can be coordinated by each bird tracking six or seven other birds. Remarkable. This is a very different kind of cognitive skill.
From Audubon Magazine