Murmurations of Starlings

“Murmurations of Starlings”

Next time you look up-wards toward the sound of a swirling, undulating ballet of black wings in the sky, know you are experiencing  a “murmuration of starlings.” European starlings create these formations in tightly packed groups that can number in the hundreds of thousands of birds. 200 million of these common starlings (originally from Britain) are estimated to be in N. America. They have successfully spread throughout most of the world.  The “murmuration of starlings” is the sound of thousands of pairs of wings beating as the starlings fly in ever changing formations. Murmurations can last seconds, minutes and up to an hour. Relish this unique experience….

After the initial awe of the aerial designs passes, one inevitably asks:  “How do the birds know how to fly in such synchronicity?” In the 1930s, famed ornithologist Edmund Selous suggested this coordination resulted from telepathy/mind-reading or perhaps from the command of a group leader in his book, “Thought Transference ( or What?) in Birds”.

This coordination was observed in flocks of birds, schools of fish and swarms of bees. Since the 1950s, We have known this “stunningly fast response to others in a ‘flock’ or ‘school’ or ‘swarm’  is the result of “scale-free behavioral correlation” (Journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 2015).  Others have termed it “The rapid transmission of local behavioral response to neighbors”.

But the important question is: “Who is keeping track of whom?”

In 2013,  a Princeton mechanical engineer ( Naomi Leonard) , along with an aerospace engineer, and a group of Italian physicists ran experiments to determine how the starlings maintain their fluid formations. The researchers discovered each bird positions itself next to approximately seven other birds, coordinating its movements to create an overlapping synchronicity. (Journal of PLOS Computational Biology).

Mario Pesendorfer, a postdoctoral research associate from the Institute of Forest Ecology at the University of National Resources of Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria,  details how each starling positions itself next to seven other birds and ignores all the rest.

Pesendorfer posits each bird controls three aspects of flight:

  • An attraction zone: “which means, in this area, you’re going to move toward the “next guy.”
  • A repulsion zone: “which means, you don’t fly into his lane, otherwise you both fall.”
  • Angular alignment: “so you’ve got to kind of follow (a bird’s neighbor) direction.”

Why do the starlings fly in these fabulous formations? Researchers believe it is to confuse and discourage predators perhaps to keep warm and even to point out a good food source.  

 Pesendorfer clarifies why the starlings are so successful at creating their murmurations.

“Birds have a much higher temporal resolution than we do. Birds take in certain information around them and process it more quickly than humans. Additionally, they see much faster than we do.”

Enjoy the gift of the next “MURMURATION”, a visual and auditory spectacle that the natural world offers you……and marvel at the incredible uniqueness of the ‘common’ starling .  

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Susan Hall, RN, Ashland