A murmuration of hunted starlings

September 25, 2013 • 6:42 pm

I really need to see the six-part BBC series Earthflight, which I gather has been picked up by PBS in the U.S. The show uses a variety of methods to photograph birds in flight, and some video clips I’ve seen (a sample is here) are stunning. Here’s one.

We’ve seen roosting flocks of starlings before, moving in great artistic waves in the twilight, but here’s one being pursued (in vain) by a peregrine falcon.  The narrator says that the synchronous movement of big groups results from each bird cueing on seven of its neighbors, something I hadn’t known, and have no idea how it was discovered. Regardless, this is one of nature’s most amazing spectacles.

One of the producers, John Downer, has a selection of 49 great animal videos on his YouTube channel.

12 thoughts on “A murmuration of hunted starlings

  1. Is Kevin Bacon one of the seven birds cueing its neighbors that results in the synchronous movement of big groups?

  2. The documentary series North America had really stunning shots of birds in flight, from right next to them. Seeing that it was clearly not CGI, after a short period of staring in disbelief at the first such scene, I actually yelled at the television, “How the hell did you do that?”

    The little bit I’ve seen of the above strongly suggests they used the same methods, if not the very same people.

    Absolutely amazing results.

  3. I have heard (no reference, sorry) that the computer folks have modeled “check with your immediate neighbors” collections of “birds” and that the displayed results look just like the real thing.

    Perhaps the model worked “best” (most realistically) when seven neighbor-checks were encoded. That kind of number can be a controllable input parameter.

    1. It’s likely how they have done it (but rather it is biologists doing the models). There is a zoo of such models out there.

      It also means the result is arguable, because it is difficult to test. (Hence the zoo.) Even more so if the near neighbor check is dynamic, supplemented with other cues et cetera.

      1. Right, biologists, of course, not computer geeks as such.

        Or more specifically, biologists who are computer savvy (but isn’t everybody, these days?).

  4. Back in the 16mm days, I flew Des Bartlett over the southern part of the Pacific flyway, while he photographed the badlands east of Mecca and spiraled down over the Salton Sea refuge while he filmed away for his film on the snow goose. He had paid for the aircraft rental and my check flight (a Cessna 177 was all that was available) and was disappointed that I wouldn’t go as low over the refuge as he wanted, but as a pilot himself (he just didn’t have what he needed to fly himself, and besides, he needed to do the filming.

    When he and Jen went to Canada, they got a flock of geese to “imprint” on them, and while Jen drove the station wagon, he would sit on the tailgate and film the geese as they paced the car, flying just a few feet away from the raised roadway. This footage, cleverly edited, gave the impression in the final cut that he was flying with the geese.

    The point-of-view footage, supposedly with a small camera mounted on the back of the Andean condor, looked very fake to me. So did some of the macaw footage and some of the other condor footage in Earthflight. But the rest, if it was fake, was a very good job. Certainly most of the footage was real, but clever editing can give the impression that things are other than they really are. No harm in that. I haven’t seen the rest of the series.

  5. I think starlings – clearly a pest & invasive species in the USA – are not as common in London as they once were, or that i9s the impression I get. That could be due to a lack of nesting sites, it could be related to invasive grey squirrels destroying nests or of course other factors.

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