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Complex patterns of collective behaviour may emerge through self-organization, from local interactions among individuals in a group. To understand what behavioural rules underlie these patterns, computational models are often necessary. These rules have not yet been systematically studied for bird flocks under predation. Here, we study airborne flocks of homing pigeons attacked by a robotic falcon, combining empirical data with a species-specific computational model of collective escape. By analysing GPS trajectories of flocking individuals, we identify two new patterns of collective escape: early splits and collective turns, occurring even at large distances from the predator. To examine their formation, we extend an agent-based model of pigeons with a ‘discrete’ escape manoeuvre by a single initiator, namely a sudden turn interrupting the continuous coordinated motion of the group. Both splits and collective turns emerge from this rule. Their relative frequency depends on the angular velocity and position of the initiator in the flock: sharp turns by individuals at the periphery lead to more splits than collective turns. We confirm this association in the empirical data. Our study highlights the importance of discrete and uncoordinated manoeuvres in the collective escape of bird flocks and advocates the systematic study of their patterns across species.