It’s one of the great birding mysteries on display each fall with the migration: How on Earth do huge flocks of birds come together and fly in formation, zigging and zagging in some of nature’s best choreography, making split-second pirouettes at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour?
For centuries people could do little more than guess at the mechanics. Do birds possess a kind of telepathy about when to turn? Is there a single leader that the birds all watch as an orchestra does its conductor?
Today, with the use of 3D photography, digital reconstruction and several ground-breaking research projects, the secrets are finally coming out. And with them are possible lessons that could be used in everything from programming drones to training people new styles of leadership.
We spent several weeks this fall on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, watching big flocks of Black Skimmers zoom about in unison, hundreds of Terns zip along the shoreline in clusters, and thousands of ducks fly in V-formations on their way south. For all the wonder of the fall and spring migrations, nothing sweeps you away like the sudden eruption of a mass flock flight.