A murmuration of starlings

November 4, 2011 • 2:18 pm

Finally something nice from PuffHo: a murmuration of starlings, an example of animal behavior that always leaves me breathless. (I’ve seen this, albeit in less spectacular form, in Scotland.)

Starlings engage in this group flight when getting ready to roost at night (they do so collectively). You can read more about the biology of this behavior in an article in Audubon noted by reader Julien Rousseau.

From the PuffHo post:

In the video below, Vimeo user Sophie Windsor Clive captured an incredible example of the event on the River Shannon in Ireland. Clive and her companion,Liberty Smith, just seem to happen on the event as they were canoeing across. It was an amazing treat neither of them ever expected to see.

There are lots of videos of this phenomenon on YouTube: here are three good ones.  And of course this kind of flocking has evolved convergently in other species. Here’s a video of a very similar behavior in fish.

36 thoughts on “A murmuration of starlings

  1. About this time of year we get (millions?) of blackbirds who in the evening do this, but on a smaller scale. I’ve never been able to video the phenomenon but it’s cool to watch.

    1. And there is the kaaahing, gregarious and quarrelsome behaviour of rooks coming to roost at twilight, most famously in Norfolk, England. Someone wrote a book about it a couple of years back; anyone know its name?

        1. That sounds very … “Norfolk” … which is not a great compliment from a Soke person. What we (or more precisely, my grandfather) used to say, with more intelligibility and considerably shortened vowels, was that “A craw in a crowd is a rook, and a rook on it’s own is a crow.” Which is a comment on the flocking behaviours of the two common [English] Corvid birds.

  2. I love watching starlings.

    Back when I was honing my skeptic skills by browsing “paranormal” websites, I once got in comments row with Loren Coleman when he posted a “mystery photo” of a giant flying manta ray or possibly a living pterodactyl.

      1. Geez. I was just going to comment on how Emmett Glynn (and Band) made a pretty cool sounding ditty, in 7/8 too. Flowed well.

        As my grandma used to say: “to zeech to zown.”

  3. Brighton is a good place to see them, on the old pier. There used to be loads in London but I see very few these days. They did roost in Leicester Square sometimes, & once when I worked at St.Paul’s & we had scaffolding up around the Golden Gallery, a big flock came up & roosted there for a while. We thought maybe they had been attracted by the smell – I had cleaned graffiti off the walls & the architect had this mixture of stuff – a sort of lime wash with fat in for some reason – that I had to daub on the stonework (to reject ink etc & make it harder to write on).

      1. My pleasure.

        I actually found it on the internet a few weeks ago while reading Richard Dawkin’s “The Greatest Show On Earth” following him using starlings as an example of simple local rules emerging as complicated behaviour so part of the credit goes to him raising my consciousness to it.

  4. I went to the Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset, England last January and the roosting flock of starlings we saw was estimated to number over three million birds. What the videos often fail to capture is the noise – if the birds come close and fly directly over your head it sounds like a train passing by!

    1. And as an Oxford alum involved in studying such phenomena once told me, “the probability of being shat upon is 1.”

      1. In Rome, after such an avian ballet, all the little Fiat cars parked under the trees would be covered inch-deep in heavenly manure, with the proprietors erupting in a collective outpour of the most profane and blasphemous imprecations.

        Divine Fiat, no doubt?

  5. I see this regularly while I’m going to work over Runcorn’s bridge and It never fails to fascinate me. Still obviously god did it:-(

  6. Dawkins mentions them in his book “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Each starling is acting ‘locally’.

      1. Pun aside:
        The really fascinating insight in the two PNAS papers I linked below (Open Access, by the way) is that the emerging group behaviour needs only very limited local support: each bird interacting mainly with its 6-7 closest neighbours, independent of absolute distance. Scale-free (more properly: scale-independent) Barabási networks emerging dynamically from limited, local interaction.

        Funny enough, that’s exactly how Linus Torvalds described the structure of his interactions within the Linux community in a recent interview.

        1. I didn’t intend to trivialize the science that goes into studying this phenomenon. Thanks for the interesting links. I don’t understand most of the math in those articles, so I appreciate your comments below all the more.

  7. I’ve seen the phenomenon full-size over Rome, and frankly, it’s huge! There’s a video somewhere of it against the backdrop of the Vatican, and even St. Peter’s Dome is humbled.

    But equally interesting are the findings of Andrea Cavagna and co-workers hinted at in the Audubon article.
    The Cavagna et al. here:

    Its equally interesting predecessor:

    Be sure to download in both cases the Combined PDF including the supporting information: it’s breathtaking!

    Two things struck me:
    1. the dependence on topological, rather, than metric distance;
    2. the implication of scale-free correlation. Quoting Cavagna:
    The group cannot be divided into independent subparts, because the behavioral change of one individual influences and is influenced by the behavioral change of all other individuals in the group. Scale-free correlations imply that the group is, in a strict sense, different from and more than the sum of its parts. The effective perception range of each individual is as large as the entire group and it becomes possible to transfer undamped information to all animals, no matter their distance, making the group respond as one.

    Now that’s maths put to good use!

    Note that the spiritus rector behind both papers is Giorgio Parisi. Check out his papers: from quantum field theory to flocking birds, a remarkable range of interests.

    (And, Jerry, this is an infinitely more fascinating subject than theology…)

    1. I’ve seen the phenomenon full-size over Rome, and frankly, it’s huge! There’s a video somewhere of it against the backdrop of the Vatican, and even St. Peter’s Dome is humbled.So, the RCC head quarters can be humbled by a bunch of Italian bird brains? That ain’t no way to talk about Leonardo, Galileo and co.!

      1. Quite the contrary!
        Leonardo the bird man would have marvelled at the new-found ability to unravel the flock’s behaviour as a single organism. Galileo the experimentator would have gone bonkers about the clever camera setup by Cavagna & Co., let alone the maths. These were true Renaissance men, for whom art was the aesthetic application of scientific understanding and experimental knowledge. Leonardo and Galileo were truly ‘birds of a flock’ in spirit.
        We have the idiotic problem of the ‘two cultures’; they, for a brief and immensely creative moment in history, did not.

        Now, a real pity for the beautiful architecture, but the RC Kremlin and Berlusconi’s Rome deserve every single bird dropping they get.

  8. As a minor aside … could one of the trans-Pond people remind me of something? I recognise “PuffHo” as probably being a scatalogical reference to the Huffington Post, which is some sort of American newspaper, or newspaper-alike-website ? I’ve seen little bits of it in the past. What I can’t remember is if it’s insane right-wing, or normal ultra-extreme right-wing, or even (by trans-Pondian standards) neo-Communist extreme right-wing?
    I try to keep track of these things, but my memory of trying to read it’s editorial is that it’s the sort of lunatic right-wingery that has me tempted to shout at the screen, which isn’t terribly helpful for trying to work out where on the political spectrum it actually lays.
    (FWIW, I describe myself elsewhere as being to the left of Joe Stalin and simultaneously to the right of Chengiz Khan. Which is a comment on the “wing” system of classifying political thought more than anything else.)

    1. No, PuffHo is not conservative, far from it, it’s rather all over the place. If anything, it’s leaning to the left. No publication that has Robert Reich as a regular contributor can be called right-wing :-).The problem is that it’s not really a journal, but rather a collection of blogs and its journalistic standards are quite uneven (to put it mildly). For example, it propagates a lot of pseudoscientific stuff, New Age “medicine”, homeopathy etc.

  9. I’ve seen murmurations this big, but never this close. I usually see them at high altitudes as massive number come down here from up where Jerry lives.

    Got a friend who is a park ranger (and she still has a job) who hates seeing the starlings every winter. She is the enemy of all invasive species. Bought a house and chainsawed the tallows and mimosas.

    At the same time, she is a megafauna restorationist.


    1. If only we could restore the real megafauna; Smilodon, mammoths, ground sloths…

      I understand the impetus behind the war on invasive spp and restoration movements, and am all for them, but very cynical about their chance of success.

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