Flocks of birds in flight represent a striking example of collective behaviour. Models of self-organization suggest that repeated interactions among individuals following simple rules can generate the complex patterns and coordinated movements exhibited by flocks. However, such models often assume that individuals are identical and interchangeable, and fail to account for individual differences and social relationships among group members. Here, we show that heterogeneity resulting from species differences and social structure can affect flock spatial dynamics. Using high-resolution photographs of mixed flocks of jackdaws, Corvus monedula, and rooks, Corvus frugilegus, we show that birds preferentially associated with conspecifics and that, like high-ranking members of single-species groups, the larger and more socially dominant rooks positioned themselves near the leading edge of flocks. Neighbouring birds showed closer directional alignment if they were of the same species, and neighbouring jackdaws in particular flew very close to one another. Moreover, birds of both species often flew especially close to a single same-species neighbour, probably reflecting the monogamous pair bonds that characterize these corvid social systems. Together, our findings demonstrate that the characteristics of individuals and their social systems are likely to result in preferential associations that critically influence flock structure.
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