“How do pigeons know which way to go?”
I was talking to a group of naturalist friends. A small flock of pigeons were flying overhead and I was observing their behaviour. They flew for a few seconds in an untidy V-shape, nothing as sophisticated as geese, but there was a definite leader. A straggler at the back wasn’t in formation and was a split second behind, a couple of feet off to the left. All of a sudden, the group turned in a semi-circle and headed off together in another direction, but the shift was so sudden and every bird knew it was happening. Of course, we already suspect that pigeons navigate using the earth’s magnetic fields and by smelling odours on the winds to guide them home, but I was curious about their group behaviour; how did they all know to go together? How do they decide who takes the front space? Are they following the one in the front or have they all pre-mapped their journey?
These questions went unanswered, however a couple of days later there was a fascinating piece on the radio about group decisions. It is known that some animals do make group decisions. Dolphins, for example, are known to get together and make decisions together before undertaking a certain group actions. They do this by vocalising their opinions and then going with the majority. And it seems that new research has shown that it is not just these underwater Einstein’s who consult each other in this way. Alaskan hunting dogs also get together to make decisions but making a ‘sneezing’ sound. Researchers found that an individual would wake the others up when it was hungry and wanted to go hunting. This action would only be undertaken if enough of the others agreed and they would show their agreement by making a sneezing sound; a snuff of air breathed out of their nose. If the correct number of dogs all voted in this manner, the pack would set off. But the process doesn’t seem to be all that democratic; the leaders of the pack only needed a handful of other dogs to agree, however subordinate members needed a much larger amount of support.
Of course, this latest research isn’t exactly new. A species of macaque will also make suggestions to the rest of their groups. Tonkean macaques will take a few steps then turn back and call to their group, indicating they wish to move to a new feeding site. If all the group agree, they will follow. If someone has another suggestion, they will repeat the same behaviour but in another direction. The rest of the group will then vote by joining the macaque they wish to follow and in the end, majority rules. As well as this, honey bees have their own democratic societies displayed through dancing and even American buffalo will ‘vote’ by using their body language.
It is fantastic to hear about more research that investigates the social relationships of different species and it is a constant reminder that there is still so much we don’t understand about animals’ natural behaviour and how we have so much more to learn. There is further research going into the navigation behaviour of pigeons, but whilst I wait for the results, I will just have to continue to admire them from the ground.