Running around in circles — it works for birds

Geese flocking in snow, with duck

Laughter relieves stress and so each night when I went out to close up the birds for protection from the nightly predators I had plenty of stress relief at the duck pen where all the young ducks were. Usually we keep some geese in with the ducks to help with the protection racket so they all mill around and eventually go where they are supposed to. These young ducks were surplus that were eventually going to the butcher and because we had a shortage of nighttime pens, we left them out. Their response to our presence was to go around and around in a big circle, quacking away. I had expected that they would scatter to all corners, similar to chickens when they are startled, so that a predator would be so confused figuring out who to get that they would miss getting any of them. We never did lose any of those circling ducks, and surmised that the owls and raccoons prowling around must be so busy laughing at the ducks thinking they were safe because they were going around in circles that they forgot to eat them.

The ducks were right and I was wrong when it comes to avoiding predators. This is the season where we see the huge flocks of starlings in the evenings as they get ready to roost, turning as if they were one, thousands of birds at a time at speeds reaching 40 miles per hour and more in a densely packed group. Our ducks move much slower than the starlings but they still swirl and change directions faster than we can keep track of. Scientists have had theories over the years as to why birds display this flocking behavior and how they can possibly communicate so swiftly, faster than the eye can see. The Romans thought the gods gave clues about things in the future through the birds’ flight. Scientists in the early 1900’s talked about “natural telepathy” or a “group soul.” Finding food, finding mates, but most of all protection are thought to be the main reasons.

Lots of animals travel in herds or flocks and predators generally pick off the weak ones that fall behind. A carnivore attacking a large group of prey would mean that the predator would have more chance of being injured. A swirling mass of ducks would disrupt any careful stalking of one’s dinner and likely lead to a good chance of being trampled in the mud while trying to subdue the next meal. When we try to catch just one bird, we have to separate them out of the masses a few at a time until we have a more manageable number to work with.

Thanks to computer simulations and high speed photography, those huge flocks of animals, from a battery of barracudas, a dazzle of zebras, a mob of meerkats, a brace of ducks to a murmation of starlings are becoming easier to understand. A starling apparently can pay attention to the 6 or 7 starlings around it with the distance in front and back more important that distance to the side. That prevents them from being distracted by birds farther away. A few birds spot a predator, initiate a turn and the turn spreads through the entire flock. Sight is definitely one means of communication; possibly sound or the feel of the air flow from the other birds are other signals. This flocking behavior takes practice and the slow learners will be the ones to come up missing at the end of the day. Sure enough if we separate six or seven ducks out from the flock we can pick out which we want with greater accuracy.

We humans also display flocking behavior according to some researchers. “In many ways, human beings behave like flocks of birds or schools of fish,” says Nicholas Christakis, co-author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Thanks to the Internet we have a new flock to hang out with, and research tells us this is a good thing. Chatting online is better than parking in front of the TV, for being part of a larger group helps memory, recovery from strokes and overall health. It decreases depression if you are communicating with people you know (although if you are using the Internet to meet new people it increases depression and feelings of isolation). Studies of flocking behavior have been applied to the stock market, to fashion, to politics. Next time you feel like you are going in circles don’t feel so bad, for there may be some actual benefit to it. Enjoy your time on Facebook guilt-free for while it is not quite as good as chocolate and a good book, it has its benefits.
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