A new study has decoded which birds become leaders in homing pigeon flocks, finding an unexpected benefit of leadership: faster birds emerge as leaders, and these leaders learn more about their environment than their followers.
Flocks of homing pigeons circling overhead display remarkable feats of coordination (Figure 1). These movements are the product of leader–follower dynamics, with some individuals influencing the group’s movements more than others . But the explanation to which individuals emerge as leaders within these flocks has remained elusive. New work reported in this issue of Current Biology by Pettit et al.  reveals a simple mechanism showing how some individuals rise to the top of the flock. Using an elegant experimental protocol and high-resolution spatial and temporal tracking data, the researchers also find a surprising benefit of becoming a leader.