Few things in today’s world cause us to pause our technology driven lives, and just look up. But if you noticed a dark cloud darting across the sky, assuming a variety of different shapes and movements, that might just do it.
No, you’re not tripping on psychedelics, and we haven’t fooled you with computer graphics. These are real, and the science behind them will blow your mind.
These massive aerial stunts are called Murmurations. And they’re made up of hundreds, to hundreds of thousands of tiny birds called Starlings.
They swoop and dive through the air, completely in unison, creating unpredicatable formations. For years, all humans could do is watch in awe, as a complete mystery took place above. But with modern technology that can keep up with the birds’ activity, we’re finally able to answer some of our biggest questions:
Like, how do all these birds coordinate with each other? What do their movements have to do with the laws of physics? And why is this dance the key to their survival?
Have you ever tried synchronized swimming, or even choreographed dancing of any type? It’s very difficult for humans to move in unison with each other. And for the most part we’re just talking about a few us, not thousands.
So, how do these birds make it look so easy? How do they make it look like they’re all part of one single mass? Do they plan and rehearse their patterns beforehand? Until recently, it was hard to say. But now with high powered cameras and computers, scientists have been able to make sense of the phenomenon.
The first thing they learned is that the flying patterns have more to do with physics than biology. When a murmuration turns in unison it’s similar to what’s known as a critical transition. So there, it’s all cleared up now, right?
Ok, for those of you who aren’t physicists, a critical transition can be thought of as an abrupt change that occurs when an external force pushes something to its tipping point. Think of it like this, the giant group movements of a murmuration aren’t happening because of any communication between the birds, they’re a physical reaction. When an external factor like an incoming predator causes one bird to move in a certain direction, that bird bumps into the others around him, causing a massive change of course.
It’s like when an earthquake triggers the same kind of reaction in the snowflakes of an avalanche, or a strong heat source causes a shift in liquid molecules, turning them into gas. One bird affects the seven closest surrounding birds, and each of those birds’ movements affects their seven neighbors, and so on, throughout the entire group.
This is why a murmuration can appear to have several moving parts, each with a slight variety in speed and direction. But what’s the point of it all? Why are all these starlings gathering in one location in the first place? Well surprisingly the reasons aren’t too different from why humans gather in large groups.
For one thing, they like to communicate with each other. Starlings get together to share information, like where to find good feeding sites. The large groups are also helpful for providing much needed warmth during long winter nights, and for defending against predators.
Just like most species around the world, Starlings find safety in numbers. When predators like peregrine falcons dive in for an attack, they find it much more difficult to target one bird when they’re all spinning and turning together.
Even the smallest Murmurations will have about 200 birds in flight. The larger ones can contain hundreds of thousands. In 1999, there was one cluster recorded that consisted of more than 6 million Starlings, imagine trying to pick your next meal out of that.
You’re not likely to see one that big anytime soon, but smaller ones are fairly common if you look in the right places. Starlings start to gather in the fall, and they’re usually seen in the early evening, just before dusk. They tend to rest in places that provide shelter from harsh weather and predators, like cliffs and buildings.
If you’re ever lucky enough to see one of these in the flesh, keep your phone in your pocket, and just enjoy it. Natural majesties like this don’t come around every day, and that’s why Starlings are Crazy Creatures.
- “The Startling Science Of A Starling Murmuration”. Keim, Brandon, 2011. WIRED. Accessed January 5 2019.
- “What Is A Murmuration?”. 2018. wonderopolis.org. Accessed January 5 2019.
- “The Incredible Science Behind Starling Murmurations”. Haimbuch, Jaymie, 2014. MNN – Mother Nature Network. Accessed January 5 2019.
- “Starling Murmuration | Starling Flocks And Roosting – The RSPB”. 2019. The RSPB. Accessed January 5 2019.
- “Murmurations – What they are, why they happen and where to see them?” , Kayleigh, Jakobs Rutter, 2017. woodlandtrust.org.ok. Accessed January 5 2019.