September 27, 2016
Our fearless, GPS-tracked homing pigeon leader, poised to steer the flock astray. Photo by: Zsuzsa Ákos In a recent study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers from the University of Oxford have discovered that pigeons have more reasoning capacity than urban-dwelling humans have ever credited them. It was previously thought that “bad” flock leaders that made navigational mistakes would propagate their errors down through a hierarchical decision-making system in species that travel together, like the homing pigeon (above and below). 'Lo and behold, the researchers found that those fast but not necessarily competent avian captains can be overruled by the collective wisdom of the group. Yo, Aristotle! Lead author Isobel Watts explains in the University's news release that the researchers were interested in how much control the “top” bird actually exerted over its inferiors. Flock leaders were in essence jet-lagged using a "clock-shifting" technique that scrambled their sense of direction, and then, with their flock study-group partners, fitted with GPS trackers. The study found that the “misinformed” leaders tended to lose their place at the top of the hierarchy, and the flock would generally correct its faulty homing instinct and stay on course. Watts says that “[t]he exact mechanism by which a flock is able to correct for misinformation coming from its leader is still unclear. However, we can speculate that it may be due to either misinformed flock leaders doubting their own abilities and paying more attention to what their flockmates appear to be doing, or the flock members recognizing weakness in the leader and taking more control themselves."
Clearly, this is not a confident-looking pigeon. Photo by: Zsuzsa Ákos Co-author Dr. Dora Biro points out that the ability of the group to correct a mistake of a wayward leader would be “particularly important in migratory bird species, where getting lost during a trip could be a matter of life and death.” Collective wisdom is also the soul of our democracies, although the human experiment is ongoing.