, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 111-122

The three-dimensional structure of airborne bird flocks

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The three-dimensional structure of flocks of dunlin, Calidris alpina, and starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, was studied while birds were in transit between feeding, loafing and roosting sites. A technique was developed that uses standard photogrammetric methods to determine the three-coordinate position of birds in flocks from stereoscopic pairs of simultaneously exposed photographs. A comparison of nearest neighbour distances indicates that dunlin have a tighter, more compact flock structure than do starlings (Fig. 2; Table 2). Analysis of interbird angles in both the vertical and horizontal planes indicates that each dunlin's nearest neighbour is most likely to be behind and below it. This spatial structure results in areas in which few nearest neighbours occur (e.g., immediately in front and below) (Fig. 3). Flight speeds during transit flights are also presented (Table 4). The spatial structure and behaviour of dunlin and starling flocks appear to be very similar to the structure and behaviour of schools of fish.