Empirical investigation of starling flocks: a benchmark study in collective animal behaviour

Title{Empirical investigation of starling flocks: a benchmark study in collective animal behaviour}
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsBallerini M, Cabibbo N, Candelier R, Cavagna A, Cisbani E, Giardina I, Orlandi A, Parisi G, Procaccini A, Viale M, others
JournalAnimal behaviour

Bird flocking is a striking example of collective animal behaviour. A vivid illustration of this phenomenon is provided by the aerial display of vast flocks of starlings gathering at dusk over the roost and swirling with extraordinary spatial coherence. Both the evolutionary justification and the mechanistic laws of flocking are poorly understood, arguably because of a lack of data on large flocks. Here, we report a quantitative study of aerial display. We measured the individual three-dimensional positions in compact flocks of up to 2700 birds. We investigated the main features of the flock as a whole (shape, movement, density and structure) and we discuss these as emergent attributes of the grouping phenomenon. Flocks were relatively thin, of various sizes, but constant proportions. They tended to slide parallel to the ground and, during turns, their orientation changed with respect to the direction of motion. Individual birds kept a minimum distance from each other that was comparable to their wing span. The density within the aggregations was nonhomogeneous, as birds were packed more tightly at the border than the centre of the flock. These results constitute the first set of large-scale data on three-dimensional animal aggregations. Current models and theories of collective animal behaviour can now be tested against these data.