Travelling in groups gives animals opportunities to share route information by following cues from each other's movement. The outcome of group navigation will depend on how individuals respond to each other within a flock, school, swarm or herd. Despite the abundance of modelling studies, only recently have researchers developed techniques to determine the interaction rules among real animals. Here, we use high-resolution GPS (global positioning system) tracking to study these interactions in pairs of pigeons flying home from a familiar site. Momentary changes in velocity indicate alignment with the neighbour's direction, as well as attraction or avoidance depending on distance. Responses were stronger when the neighbour was in front. From the flocking behaviour, we develop a model to predict features of group navigation. Specifically, we show that the interactions between pigeons stabilize a side-by-side configuration, promoting bidirectional information transfer and reducing the risk of separation. However, if one bird gets in front it will lead directional choices. Our model further predicts, and observations confirm, that a faster bird (as measured from solo flights) will fly slightly in front and thus dominate the choice of homing route. Our results explain how group decisions emerge from individual differences in homing flight behaviour.
Keywords: bird flocks; collective animal behaviour; collective decision-making; leadership; self-propelled particles.