Pairs of pigeons act as behavioural units during route learning and co-navigational leadership conflicts.
Flack A., Freeman R., Guilford T., Biro D.
In many species, group members obtain benefits from moving collectively, such as enhanced foraging efficiency or increased predator detection. In situations where the group's decision involves integrating individual preferences, group cohesion can lead to more accurate outcomes than solitary decisions. In homing pigeons, a classic model in avian orientation studies, individuals learn habitual routes home, but whether and how co-navigating birds acquire and share route-based information is unknown. Using miniature GPS loggers, we examined these questions by first training pairs (the smallest possible flocks) of pigeons together, and then releasing them with other pairs that had received separate pair-training. Our results show that, much like solitary individuals, pairs of birds are able to establish idiosyncratic routes that they recapitulate together faithfully. Also, when homing with other pairs they exhibit a transition from a compromise- to a leadership-like mechanism of conflict resolution as a function of the degree of disagreement (distance separating the two preferred routes) between the two pairs, although pairs tolerate a greater range of disagreements prior to the transition than do single birds. We conclude that through shared experiences during past decision-making, pairs of individuals can become units so closely coordinated that their behaviour resembles that of single birds. This has implications for the behaviour of larger groups, within which certain individuals have closer social affiliations or share a history of previous associations.