I've seen videos of hundreds of birds flying in the same general direction but creating incredible patterns in the sky seemingly instantaneously! How do they all know in what direction to turn at the same time? Is there a "Lead" bird dictating this somehow?

  • $\begingroup$ Not an answer because I've totally forgotten where to find the papers involved, but this is an active area of research in fields ranging from biology to machine learning to mathematics. $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2014 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ Is there somewhere you can point me where I may be able to gather a little more info on this research? $\endgroup$
    – Srb1313711
    Mar 27, 2014 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ Searching scholar.google.com for swarm, swarm behaviour and the like should yield some results. $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2014 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sorry I can't be more help, but remembering references from a talk I heard 3 years ago is hard! You might have to experiment a bit to get the right search terms. If you have access to ISI Web of Knowledge, you may be able to search better there (narrow things down by field, etc). $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2014 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ Ive recently stared designing a similar program for some collision detection practice, it is in fact what led me to this question. Boids will not collide because of the code written but i'm 99% sure there's is no collision detection code written for birds:-) $\endgroup$
    – Srb1313711
    Mar 27, 2014 at 17:04

1 Answer 1


Richard Dawkins discusses this in his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

The birds, in the aforementioned example Starlings, 'know' which direction to fly and where to be by obeying simple local rules concerning the distance and spacing of other members of the flock in their immediate vicinity, without any global knowledge of the size or shape of the flock in its entirety.

The key to this behavior is that there is no choreographer and no leader. Order, organization and structure all emerge as by-products of rules obeyed locally, many times over.

Dawkins equates this to 'bottom-up' design or 'self-assembly'. This is also how embryology works. Beautifully 'designed' bodies emerge as a result of single cells obeying local rules. The idea of a blueprint is a misconception.

Dawkins mentions a man in the book named Craig Reynolds who wrote a program in 1986 called 'Boids' which models the flocking behavior of thousands of birds - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boids


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