Bird Flocks Are Airborne Ecosystems – A Video Essay

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Each year I set aside some time to observe and photograph the flocks of Sandhill Cranes that migrate to Southeastern Arizona and New Mexico. And, each year I am inspired to share something with you about my experience.

There is some kind of magic in a flock of birds. There is a synchrony of leaderless energy as the group flows through the air going here and then there while changing shapes that respond to some hidden force.

If we were to take a magic ride into a bird flock, we’d find that the movement of any one individual is directed by those neighbors closest to him. A neighbor’s proximity, speed, and direction signals and defines each creature’s movement. These signals move across the time and space of the group. Eyesight, sound, and sometimes pressure sensing nerve bundles are the energy sensors that make up the network of information that informs each individual of its expected position in the next instant of time.

BirdsAreEcosystems-1053These groups of beautifully moving creatures are as much of an ecosystem as a rain forest. Like the forest, bird groups are a biological community of interacting organisms living in their physical environment. There is a unity of energy flow throughout the flock guided by complex energy transportation and transformation networks between individuals. In this case, the physical environment is the flock which moves together in a ballet of flight. When one member leaves the group through death or other reasons, the bio-diverse system of avian community continues to function as if the missing member never existed. This resilience is a key survival strategy of the flock.

The behavior of the Sandhill Cranes extends to their intelligence in flight. I love toBirdsAreEcosystems-0026 watch them land. They are skilled pilots who know how to drop their landing gear and place their bodies in a semi-stall configuration on their final landing approach. I love to watch them turn into the wind and prepare to land with perfect timing and in perfect unison just like a group of aerobatic pilots. How do they learn to fly? Believe it or not, Sandhill parents conduct a flight school for their youngsters as shown in this video.

I want to share with you my passion for the migrating Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near McNeal, Arizona. I captured this video during the 2015 and 2016 winter seasons.


— “The Sandhills” by Linda Hogan

The language of cranes
we once were told
is the wind. The wind
is their method,
their current, the translated story
of life they write across the sky.
Millions of years
they have blown here
on ancestral longing,
their wings of wide arrival,
necks long, legs stretched out
above strands of earth
where they arrive
with the shine of water,
stories, interminable
language of exchanges
descended from the sky
and then they stand,
earth made only of crane
from bank to bank of the river
as far as you can see
the ancient story made new.


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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

2 thoughts on “Bird Flocks Are Airborne Ecosystems – A Video Essay”

    1. Thanks for your kind words Greg. What I find fascinating about Sandhill Cranes is their airborne interrelationships. The birds fly like a group of human aircraft in formation. And with this, their amazing sense of control. They sense the wind and know when to turn into that wind. While landing, they know exactly when and how to drop their legs and put their bodies into a controlled stall configuration. AND, they teach all of this to their young. There is a deep sense of intelligence and an awesome communication ability that we humans are yet to understand.

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