Have you ever watched a flock of crows leave a tree, suddenly, altogether, responding to some alarm or desire that sends them all straight up in the air and then, like a wave, they rush away, and then swirling together as the most talented dance troupe, until you see them come to rest as one in a nearby tree?
Virginia Woolf watched rooks out her window, and noticed that they looked like “a vast net with thousands of black knots in it, cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience.”
Virginia Woolf captures with impish eloquence a scene that has captivated most of us, when we’re blessed and astounded to be walking under or driving past the tree from which hundreds of birds suddenly emerge. Bird flocks have the coolest names: a flutter of sparrows, or a murmuration of starlings, or a chime of wrens, or a squabble of gulls. We give bird flocks these evocative names because their collective identity is as important as their individual identity. Birds in groups need their own names. What Virginia Woolf saw was one vast net with thousands of black knots in it – one net, not thousands of birds.
We see the same group behavior in a school of fish, or more specifically, a fleet of bass, a battery of barracudas, and a company of angel fish. A school of fish moves as one creature, swirling around coral, darting away from a shark, diving into dinner.
Colonies of ants and swarms of bees are so skilled at collective identity and group consciousness that they give us hope for our own societies. Social scientists study ants and bees looking for tips that we humans can use to give our own families and cities and countries more harmony and shared vision.