Monday, November 14, 2011

Starling Murmuration & Other Flock Behavior

A flock of starlings may not seem like a phenomenon to inspire awe. But a recent viral video proves otherwise.

Starlings (in a group, technically called a murmuration rather than a flock) can amass in huge numbers. When they fly, their movements look coordinated--even when the flock consists of thousands of birds.

As the video captures beautifully, these flocks shift shapes and move in ways that hardly seem possible.

Among the many breathless news reports on this video, one sees repeatedly that the videographer caught something extremely rare, something almost never seen in nature.

Well, not quite.

This is a natural phenomenon that you can see this fall, in Idaho, fairly easily. Just find a roosting or feeding area of starlings, blackbirds or other birds that live in large flocks. With a little patience, you'll be rewarded by these amazing flights.

In fact, just last week I saw a blackbird flock flying in patterns nearly as astounding and magical as the viral video. And I didn't have to travel far: The flight took place near the Albertson's on Federal Way and Gowen Road in Boise. Blackbirds roost nearby, and you can often see this behavior at dusk.

The flock I saw looked at first like a tornado, then moved in waves much like the flock in the video. At times, the birds seemed to turn simultaneously.

Seeing this behavior raises many questions. How do they coordinate movement? How do they keep from running into each other? Where are they going?

The study of flock behavior is quite fascinating. Birds form flocks largely for protection from predators. An individual bird (or fish, or wildebeest) is much less likely to become a predator's meal in a large group.

A flock also makes it difficult for a hawk or owl to pick out one specific target. Can you imagine trying to focus on one bird when they are moving in ever-shifting waves?

Although the movements may look choreographed, the birds are not moving in a planned direction. Each bird reacts to the birds next to it, setting off a chain reaction. The birds react in milliseconds--too fast for us to perceive--so it only looks coordinated.

There are no leaders in such flocks. Each bird reacts only to what the others are doing. As such, one bird's flinch can set off a chain reaction in the air, resulting in the wildly fantastical shapes and bends to the flocks. At times, one birds' reaction can cause swirling mid-air for several minutes (as in the video).

Eventually though, the swirling flock gets back on track and proceeds to its destination.

Many amazing natural phenomena can be seen right in your own backyard. Get outside: the large flocks await.

Photograph by Edibob, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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