For your average Canadian, it’s pretty normal to see geese flying in v-shaped formations as they migrate north and south. An interesting feat, but their talent pales in comparison to birds that somehow manage to fly in perfect unison among flocks that range into the thousands. You’ve probably seen them, but what are these magnificent acrobats of the sky?
We’re talking about Starlings. Common in North America, parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, they are small birds that create something called a murmuration when they fly in groups. If you’ve ever seen one, you know it’s one of the coolest natural phenomena to watch. Basically, thousands of the birds flock together and begin criss-crossing through the air as they create dazzling patterns in the sky. It’s almost like some kind of aerial ballet.
(This is your cue to watch the video above, because we really can’t do this justice in words alone.)
All done? Good.
There’s actually a lot of mystery behind how the birds pull off murmurations. After all, how do the birds manage to stay so synchronized and not crash? And why do they even bother doing this? Theories have ranged from telepathy (literally), to the birds simply grouping together for warmth. But the prevailing theory offers a more simple explanation: the birds are simply mimicking the movement of their closest neighbours in the flock.
“The clearest characterization of the structure of birds within a flock is given by the spatial distribution of the nearest neighbors,” researchers from the Centre for Statistical Mechanics and Complexity in Rome wrote.
You can think of it like “the wave” at a stadium or sporting event. As each person rises out of their seat to throw their arms into the air, it also acts as a cue to the person sitting next to them that it’s their time to join in. To make these findings, researchers actually created 3-D models of murmurations, which revealed that each starling takes cues only from its closest 6 or 7 neighbours, no matter how tightly packed they are. Starlings also arrange themselves so that there is more space between them on the front and back, while offering less space on the sides. Researchers believe this is one of the ways starlings avoid mid-air collisions.
Interestingly, the birds also showed a natural inclination to fly towards the darkest areas of the flock–perhaps as a way to ensure that they remain in the group.
As for why the birds do this, researchers believe that murmurations offer the birds protection in numbers. Predators would have a hard time pursuing an individual bird, and could get confused in the giant flock.
Of course, these are all just theories. Scientists are still devoting much study to understanding this strange phenomenon. But as far as murmurations go, part of its beauty lies in its mystery.