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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.
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