Have you ever been filled with an overwhelming sense of wonder?
Me, either. Life is hard, and wonder is harder to come by than an affordable cell phone plan.
But I was out walking the other day when I noticed something amazing happening in the sky overhead. It was a flock of birds—maybe two or three hundred of them—moving extremely fast and collectively changing directions instantaneously, as if they were putting on a well-rehearsed air show.
Please don’t ask me what type of bird they were. They were black and smallish, and that’s all I know. If you insisted that I identify them, I’d bluff and tell you they were robins, starlings, crows or magpies, because those are about the only birds I know by name.
Or maybe I’d say they were parrots, although I doubt you’d believe me because everybody knows parrots are very colorful, talkative and plump—like the actor Nathan Lane, but smaller. Parrots only wear black when they’re teenagers and going through a sullen Goth phase. And they don’t fly around in packs. I’m not sure they fly at all. They mostly seem to sit around on pirates’ shoulders preening their feathers and begging for crackers.
Pink Flamingos are nature's answer to Broadway show tunes.
I can tell you they weren’t Pink Flamingos, however. Pink Flamingos sport long, graceful necks and dramatic pink plumage. They’re also much more likely to stand around on one spindly leg singing Broadway show tunes than they are to engage in risky acts of aerial derring-do. I guess it’s fair to say that if parrots are the Nathan Lanes of the bird world, then Pink Flamingos are the Neil Patrick Harrises.
But this story isn’t about naming bird species. Bird species aren’t important to anybody except the National Audubon Society, which seems to be a club for old people who are so bored with life they willingly spend their weekends wading through brackish swamps to stare at birds like the Greater Scaup or Loggerhead Shrike through heavy binoculars.
What is important about this story is the way these birds were behaving.
Their erratic yet precisely controlled flight was astonishing, and I found myself marveling at the vast expanse of the blue vault above me, wondering what compelled the birds to shift directions so often, and how they all seemed to instantly know which way to turn. Also, I found myself wondering whether I need new shoes, because my feet hurt from all the walking I was doing.
But that’s another story for another time.
In that moment of childlike wonder, my curiosity piqued like a teenage boy who accidentally wanders into the cheerleaders’ locker room after practice—it really was an accident, I swear—I made a vow to myself: to rush home and educate myself about the mysterious ways of pirouetting flocks of smallish, unidentified black birds.
To be productive.
To learn something interesting about the natural world that surrounds me.
To forego my fruitless search for an inexpensive cell phone plan and explore my new-found sense of wonder.
And I did.
Well, not immediately, exactly. I booted up the computer and checked my e-mail first, and then I read a news story about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and then I priced some wireless routers on eBay, and then I bought a couple of nifty weather forecasting apps on iTunes, and then I watched a couple of interesting YouTube videos, including one about an awesome 3D marketing campaign for LG cell phones in Berlin.
But when I finally snapped out of my Internet-induced stupor about 4 hours later, I remembered my vow and Googled “how do birds know to change directions?”
My query brought up exactly 43,200,000 results.
I don’t about you, but I think that’s a stunning number. I would’ve been pleased to find one article about bird acrobatics. Forty-three million ruffled my feathers.
It made it hard to pick an article, too.
Scientists can be very disappointing.
I ignored the Smithsonian Zoo’s Neotropical Migratory Bird Basics because it sounded technical and nerdy. I also disregarded How to Predict the Weather Without a Forecast because it seemed unrelated to my question.
Besides, I’d recently purchased some awesome weather apps that do that sort of work for me. This isn’t the dark ages. We can get weather forecasts 24 hours a day via the Internet.
In the end, I settled on an article called Scientists Unravel Intricate Animal Behaviour Patterns. It seemed like the right choice to me, partly because I like sound of the words “unravel” and “intricate,” but mostly because I also misspell “behavior” all the time, and I figured these were people I could relate to.
I was shocked to learn that scientists have studied this subject for decades, and only recently came up with an answer:
“It turns out that the entire group can respond indirectly to a single individual, as each individual’s movement response is a signal to its next neighbor,” said Dr. Mark Lewis, the Canada Research Chair in Mathematical Biology at the University of Alberta. “By this method, signals are passed quickly from individual to individual. So for example, one fish turns, causing the next one to turn, then the next one, and so on. This produces the complex collective behaviors—swarm formation, zig-zag group movements—that emerge from the ‘bottom up’, simply based on interactions between neighbors.”
It took a team of crack scientists 30 to 40 years to figure out that birds and fish play follow the leader, something most people learn in kindergarten.
Is it any surprise that I’m rarely filled with an overwhelming sense of wonder?
No, it isn’t.
Look, if you can recommend an inexpensive cell phone plan, drop me an email, okay?