Perhaps you have seen a large, graceful bird formation that fills the sky and syncopates across the horizon in a feathery cloud? It is called a murmuration.
Not fully understood in terms of physics, this complex phenomenon is a defense mechanism for birds against predators. Andrea Alfano, a Cornell University undergraduate, reports 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.”
A 2012 Current Biology article by Drs. Andrew J. King and David J.T. Sumpter describes the collective behavior of these passerines (perching birds) that tend to show “continuous movement towards the safety of the centre” but “as a result, the centre never stabilizes and the murmuration twists and turns in a perpetual escape motion.”
When a flock of starlings or warblers sense danger, such as a falcon or hawk in their midst, they instinctively converge for protection. Think of it like an airborne avian avalanche. The ‘flock dynamic’ means that each starling is influenced by every other starling, and vice versa. The instinctive warning system can instantaneously throw a predator bird into futile gyrations while trying to catch prey in this stunning bird ballet.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicates that Shakespearean enthusiasts first brought European Starlings to North America in the 19th century. Starling formations are most noticeably seen at dusk and YouTube shows many video clips emanating from Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. On an individual basis, some may view the large, stout and darkly iridescent starling as noisy pests that splotch car windshields and pillage farm crops. However, Grainger Hunt, a senior scientist at the Peregrine Fund describes starlings and their murmuration as a “dazzling cloud, swirling, pulsating, drawing together to the thinnest of waists.”
Flock formations can have a wide range in the number of birds, from dozens to thousands. A sight to behold, this well-documented phenomenon is also portrayed as whimsy in art. Check out Richard Barnes’ exhibition of drawings, which uses a minimalist expression of ink blot and pigment prints to illustrate murmuration.