All About Birds Blog

How Do Starling Flocks Create Those Mesmerizing Murmurations?

By on Thursday, February 21st, 2013 - 29 Comments

starlings and starling murmurations

This post was written by Andrea Alfano, a Cornell University junior.

Andrea AlfanoWould you pull over your car just to watch some starlings? A gathering of only a few of these speckled, iridescent-black birds isn’t a very alluring sight—particularly in North America, where these birds are invaders. The European Starling was originally introduced here by a group of well-meaning Shakespeare enthusiasts in 1880, but many Americans now consider them to be pests that serve little purpose other than to dirty car windshields and destroy crops.

But Grainger Hunt, a senior scientist at the Peregrine Fund, tells a different story in Living Bird magazine. He marvels at the way thousands of the birds gather in flocks called murmurations. They are “a dazzling cloud, swirling, pulsating, drawing together to the thinnest of waists, then wildly twisting in pulses of enlargement and diminution,” he writes. It’s certainly worth stopping your car for, or stopping to watch a video like this one, a YouTube hit recorded over the River Shannon, Ireland:

Almost always, Hunt writes, these aerial spectacles are caused by a falcon near the edge of the flock. It turns out that the beauty of a murmuration’s movements often arises purely out of defense, as the starlings strive to put distance between themselves and the predator.

So how do these masses of birds move so synchronously, swiftly, and gracefully? This isn’t an idle question—it has attracted the attention of physicists interested in how group behavior can spontaneously arise from many individuals at once. In 2010, Andrea Cavagna and colleagues at the National Council of Research and the University of Rome used advanced computational modeling and video analysis to study this question. They found that starling flocks model a complex physical phenomenon, seldom observed in physical and biological systems, known as scale-free correlation.

Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members. But the remarkable thing about starling flocks is their fluidity of motion. As the researchers put it, “the group respond[s] as one” and “cannot be divided into independent subparts.”

When one starling changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to the change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. In essence, information moves across the flock very quickly and with nearly no degradation. The researchers describe it as a high signal-to-noise ratio.

This scale-free correlation allows starlings to greatly enhance what the researchers call “effective perceptive range,” which is another way of saying that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock—a huge benefit for a starling trying to avoid a falcon.

Last week, a new study on starling flocks appeared in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The researchers, led by George Young at Princeton, did their own analysis of murmuration images to see how the birds adjust to their flockmates. They determined that starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors. They also found that the shape of the flock, rather than the size, has the largest effect on this number; seven seems optimal for the tightly connected flocks that starlings are known for.

Imagine a game of telephone: one person passes a message along to the next person, who repeats it to another, and so on. For humans, the telephone message loses information very quickly—that’s what makes the game fun. The first finding, by Cavagna’s team, suggests that very little information is lost in a starling flock. The second finding, by Young’s team, suggests that starlings “play telephone” with their seven nearest neighbors. Somehow they are able to process messages from those seven neighbors all at once, and this is a part of their method for achieving scale-free correlation.

Still, neither finding explains how starlings are capable of such extraordinary collective responses. As the researchers admit, “How starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery to us.”

Murmurations remind us that nature’s beauty can take limitless forms, and can shock and inspire us. A number of commenters on the River Shannon video mention a feeling of connection that they experienced while watching the video. It’s as if seeing that synchrony, that seemingly perfect connection between each starling, also reminds us to value our connection to the world around us, for connection can be truly beautiful.

(This post was written by Andrea Alfano, a junior at Cornell University. Image is a collage of European Starling by simonglinn via Birdshare, and murmuration photo by ad551 via Creative Commons.)

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29 Comments

  1. Dr Om Prakash says:

    What an awesome spectacle !
    I was mesmerised by the graceful, fluid
    and mass movement of the birds; it was like a silent Bolero by Ravel. Can anyone deny a superior intent–call it what you will—after marvelling at this
    swirling ballet in the sky ?

  2. Laura says:

    This was a very interesting article to read, it is impressive how these birds move as if they are one organism. There’s something both beautiful and eerie about it, I got to see the huge flocks of quelia when I was in South Africa a few years back and that was incredible

    I like to imagine that there is one individual who doesn’t ‘get it’ who is going through the crowd narrowly missing others, “oh, sorry, ‘scuse me, oh, whoops, eek, coming through…”

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  4. Paul Rentz says:

    We had a flock of some quarter million to half million across the street from our house for two years during January to March that would come in at sunset. The website I put down here shows a recent one at a local refuge I witnessed November 1, 2013, the first one I’ve seen since. God’s creation is amazing!

  5. John Olexa says:

    I absolutely love watching them!! I could spend hours watching LOL. It never gets old.
    I agree with Paul God’s work is amazing.

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  8. Ilana says:

    We have too many places in Israel to enjoy again starlings dance .it’s really worth to see

    I am waiting to see them this year again. You are welcom
    Ilana shapira

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  12. Lisa Dellapietra says:

    We do have introduced flocks in California and the behavior can be seen in the Sacramento Valley in winter. Not nearly the same numbers, but enough to be breathtaking. I recently saw a huge flock of pintails doing this.

    Similar movement in schools of anchovy and sardines.

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  14. Emmett says:

    WHAT AN AWESOME SIGHT..NEVER HAVE I SEEN ANY THING LIKE THE FLUID MOVEMENT OF THOSE BIRDS…

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  16. Gloria Rodas says:

    Fabulous. Reminds me of schooling fish… saw it live in cali one time over the flower fields , not so many but I was impressed, just didnt know there was a name for it… thanks for the article.

  17. CPolemi says:

    It appears that the starlings had this planned in advance…if you look at the beautiful illustration on this article, it appears the starling’s feathers have their own “Murmuration” in negative. The white specks in their feathers look like a negative reproduction of the Murmuration. The pattern of birds shown in the illustration appear to form a Starling flying toward the right hand side of the painting. These birds might be far more intelligent than we give them credit for! Yes i am joking but really!
    (Btw beautiful Scientific Illustration.)

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  19. MRomine says:

    What time/season of the year do they generally do this? Fall only?

  20. CPolemi says:

    Yes Dr, superior intent.
    Yes Laura, oops eek!! He he!
    Yes Paul, God’s Creation.
    Yes John, God’s Work.
    Yes everyone else! Amazing. Like zebra gathering to look as one large animal but why would starlings do this unless maybe just to show us all God’s Miracles?
    Please excuse me if i said God so many times. :-)

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  23. sam prakash says:

    As the article post explains, God is not the author of this
    spectacle. It is a purely natural phenomenon. Give credit where
    credit is due!

  24. Cpolemi says:

    God made the birds. So sorry you cannot enjoy God your creator.

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  27. Heather Lurie says:

    First, let me express my awe and wonder and the spectacle and my thanks for the insightful article. Now my question, which will probably sound trite and silly here, but is there ANY way I can get a print of the collage piece at the opening of the article. It is absolutely magnificent, and, as a bird-lover who is preparing to move away from an area where we do see small murmurations from time to time, to a place where it will never happen, I would be beyond thrilled to have this beautiful piece hanging in my new home here in New Zealand. Thanks for your patience at this (inappropriately placed??) request, and thank you for your time, and again for all the work you do!
    Cheers,
    Heather

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Heather – thanks for the comment and glad you liked the image at the top. Unfortunately, this is a graphic that was created for the Web and it’s not at a resolution that would allow printing. Best of luck in New Zealand! – Hugh

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