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Speed is the essence for great pigeon leaders, study finds

Study: Faster birds tend to end up at the front of a flock doing most of the navigation
Study: Faster birds tend to end up at the front of a flock doing most of the navigation

Speed is what makes great pigeon leaders, a study has shown.

Faster birds tend to end up at the front of a flock doing most of the navigation. As a result, they assume the role of leaders that others follow, said researchers.

The discovery helps explain how flocking birds decide who will lead the way on migrations that might cover thousands of miles.

Previous research had shown that flock leadership was unrelated to social dominance.

Lead scientist Dr Dora Biro, from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: "Some birds are naturally faster and consistently get to the front, where they end up doing more of the navigation, which means on future flights they know the way better.

"You can compare this to a 'passenger-driver' type of effect - drivers in a car have to pay attention, while passengers are often unable to recall the route they were driven along, especially if they remained passive in the navigation process."

For the study, published in the journal Current Biology, 40 homing pigeons were tagged with GPS satellite trackers and released first individually and then in 10-bird flocks. Both speed and homing efficiency were measured.

Not only did faster birds take the lead, they also seemed to be better at learning routes, the scientists found.

Co-author Dr Benjamin Pettit, also from Oxford University, said: "Our results demonstrate a consequence of group movement that hasn't been documented before - that leaders learn more effectively than followers during collective travel.

"Furthermore, a pigeon's degree of leadership correlated with the speed rather than the straightness of its preceding solo flight.

"We therefore demonstrate that both leadership and learning during group flights can be predicted from inherent, consistent individual differences - in this case, speed."