Pigeon Leaders That Make Bad Decisions Lose Influence in the Flock

A new study has shown that pigeons can compensate for bad decisions by their flock’s leader. If the lead bird makes mistakes, that individual begins to lose influence among the rest of the flock. This allows the flock to readjust and ignore misinformation. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Biology Letters.

Homing pigeons (Columba livia) possess excellent navigational abilities. Although individual birds are capable of finding their way, pigeon flocks do have leaders. A team of researchers from the University of Oxford had previously used models to show that incorrect information from a leader can propagate throughout an entire flock. To test this idea, the team studied flocks of homing pigeons.

The research team tracked eight small pigeon flocks using GPS. To throw off the birds’ navigational senses, the team used a technique called clock-shifting. The technique involves keeping the birds in artificial lighting for an extended period of time. The birds are exposed to a normal amount of light but at different times (daylight during evening hours, for example). Since homing pigeons use the sun to navigate, they need to know the time of day. Pigeons that have been clock-shifted will fly in the wrong direction, based on the artificial time of day from clock-shifting.

When all of the pigeons in a flock were clock-shifted, the flock consistently flew in the wrong direction. If just the leader was clock-shifted, however, the birds were able to readjust. The flock would begin flying the wrong way but they would quickly get back onto the correct route. The leader would then begin spending less time at the front of the flock. The authors speculate that the misinformed leaders were losing influence in the group due to their incorrect decisions.

The findings show that pigeon flocks can adapt to misinformed leaders by shifting the hierarchy and getting back on track. This type of adaptability is important; a flock that follows a bad leader could end up lost or dead. Flexible decision-making is a valuable skill, especially in migratory bird species that must travel great distances.


Isobel Watts et al. Misinformed leaders lose influence over pigeon flocks. Biology Letters (2016).

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