Hundreds of starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, are seen flocking together in this video filmed at Otmoor in England. The birds can reach speeds of more than 40 miles per hour, wheeling together in giant spatial asymmetric patterns that appear highly coordinated.
This formation is known as a murmuration of starlings when large numbers of these birds flock together, typically in the late afternoon before roosting. The name is suggestive of the ‘whooshing’ sound the birds’ wings make through the air as they fly en masse.
The explanation for this flocking behavior is unclear, but many experts believe it is based upon the principle of safety in numbers—to protect themselves against predators such as peregrine falcons.
In fact, this video shows a sparrowhawk attempting to pick off birds at the edge of the flock.
However, if the birds really are trying to avoid predators, it might make more sense to roost in the trees straight away.
Regardless of the reasons behind the phenomenon, scientists are also interested to understand how the birds manage to achieve such aerial acrobatics without collisions.
A European project called StarFLAG aims to reconstruct the birds’ three-dimensional movements and create computer models of this complex behavior.
In 2008, researchers filmed thousands of starlings flocking in Rome, using special software to pinpoint up to 2,600 individual birds and map the structure of formations to reveal their true shapes.
The team found that typically the birds have plenty of open space in front and behind with other birds distributed nearby on their sides. Each bird appears to pay attention to six or seven neighbors to achieve this spatial asymmetry.
The birds can probably guide their flight by detecting information using several senses—sight, hearing, and possibly also the feeling of air currents created by neighboring birds.
The murmuration mystery remains a subject of research by professionals, including aeronautical engineers and mathematicians, but whatever the science behind it, the spectacle is a wonder to behold
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