Chorus Line in the Sky

Learn how Dunlins avoid in-flight collisions.

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote®, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

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What is that cloud low in the autumn sky, shape-shifting as you watch from a beach or mudflat, suddenly flashing from dark to light? It's a cloud of small sandpipers called Dunlins. When threatened by a falcon, Dunlins take to the air, flying so close together that it's hard for a predator to capture one. The Dunlins' synchronous twisting-and-turning is a marvel of aerial acrobatics, with the birds alternately flashing brown backs and white bellies. The speed of change is breathtaking, with hundreds of birds turning simultaneously.

A researcher, curious about the lack of midair collisions – and speculating about extrasensory communication – filmed a few of these flocks. He found that a bird at one edge turns toward the middle, and a wave sweeps across the entire flock in less than a second. Like a member of a chorus-line, each bird sees the movement beginning to happen and makes the appropriate response.

The bird calls you hear on BirdNote come from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To hear this show again, visit our website, BirdNote.org.

Dunlin audio provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by G.A. Keller. Producer: John Kessler  Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

© 2014 Tune In to Nature.org      October 2014      Narrator: Mary McCann

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