Pigeons embrace democracy

Ever since some Greek bloke came up with the notion of a voting system for electing leaders, democracy has been responsible for some epoch defining moments in our history; the signing of the Magna Carta, the women’s suffrage movement and, the pinnacle of our nations’ achievement thus far, Joe McEldery’s victory over Lloyd Daniels in the 2009 X Factor final.

This novel ‘everyone is equal’ idea has indeed proved so successful that it is even being taken up in the animal kingdom, with scientists discovering that pigeons employ a democratic hierarchy when grouped together.

Monitoring a flock of pigeons using GPS tracking, scientist were able to conclude that the much maligned flying rat has developed a sense of that most civilized of political concepts in order make navigational decisions, according to a report published in Nature recently.

“We are all aware of the amazing acrobatics performed by flocks of birds,” said Dr Dora Biro of Oxford University.  “But how such flocks decide where to go and whether decisions are made by a dominant leader or by the group as a whole has always been a mystery.”

In order to analyse how the birds behave in group flight a number of pigeons were fitted with little backpacks carrying GPS emitters which allowed the scientists to track movements to a fraction of a second. It was discovered that over the course of a number of flights leaders of the packs differed regularly in order to allow the most adept at navigating to take charge.

“The flock is not dominated by a single bird and not completely egalitarian either.  It is a hierarchical system where some birds that rank higher than others will make the most influential decisions but those lower down the pecking order can also make decisions, which influence those below them.”

“Crucially these hierarchies are flexible in the sense that the leading role of any given bird can vary over time, while nonetheless remaining predictable in the long run.”