Two spectacular murmurations

January 30, 2014 • 1:49 pm

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out by a couple of readers, and gleefully by the Discovery Institute, that the first video below comes from a documentary on Intelligent Design called “Flight: The genius of birds”.  I didn’t know that when I posted it, and I didn’t look up the link at the end, for I was simply mesmerized by the display of murmuration.  Had I known this, I would certainly have called it to the readers’ attention, but I probably still would have posted the video, with a caveat, because the visuals are spectacular. Even a blind pig, or a herd of them, can find an acorn.

The phenomenon of murmuration, which scientists are trying to explain (and starting to succeed) gives not the slightest evidence for God, so those of you who are gloating that a pro-ID video appeared on this site, just stuff it! Nobody here is going to look at that video and say, “Geez, that’s strong evidence for God!” If you do, you’re at the wrong place.

There are many unexplained behaviors in the animal kingdom, and if you’re going to take them all as evidence for God, you’re on precarious ground.


The Oxford English Dictionary has two definitions for “murmuration”:

a. The action of murmuring; the continuous utterance of low, barely audible sounds; complaining, grumbling; an instance of this. Now chiefly literary.


2. A flock (of starlings). One of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated. Revived and popularized in the 20th cent.

So the origin of the term as a group of starlings is obscure, though I suspect it comes from of the murmuring sound such a group makes, which I’ve heard in person.

Regardless, I’ve previously posted videos of the amazing flocks of starlings that form before evening roosts, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands. And the flocks form amazing and ever-changing patterns in the air—I think of them as an avian Aurora Borealis. Here’s one of many videos you can find on YouTube:

But why do they do this? Well, it’s almost certainly for protection from predators (thick, shifting groups keep avian predators from singling out one individual, which is the way they usually hunt, since charging into a flock of birds without a designated prey can injure you), as well as using your groupmates as a way to find secure roosting sites and to keep warm when you land. We don’t know the answer, but, as Wired Science reports, we have some idea of how they do this:

Scientists had to wait for the tools of high-powered video analysis and computational modeling. And when these were finally applied to starlings, they revealed patterns known less from biology than cutting-edge physics.

Starling flocks, it turns out, are best described with equations of “critical transitions” — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.

At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple. When a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality is created and maintained.

It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.

That is, scientists can mimic the murmuration behaviors with computers using relatively simple rules. But mimicking behaviors on a computer is not the same thing as understanding the rules that the animals use themselves. In this case they’re probably very similar, but we still don’t know why the birds turn and who initiates it, much less how they avoid banging into each other when they’re in groups of thousands of individuals separated only by a winglength.

This is clearly an evolved behavior, but the details—largely physiological and neuronal rather than evolutionary—are still obscure.  And when we finally understand them—if we come to understand them—it will only add extra beauty to one of nature’s most spectacular displays.

Have a look at another murmuration:

I hope that you’re lucky enough to see one of these.

h/t: Norm

40 thoughts on “Two spectacular murmurations

  1. Spectacular!

    I wonder if the membership of the sub-flocks tend to fluctuate, or if the same clusters of birds tend to wind up together night after night. And when a pair of flocks merge and then separate again, is it the same birds in each of the groups before and after?


    1. Yeah I always wondered how birds join flocks and how long those flocks last as well because starlings in particular tend to flock together more in the Fall, then they disappear and then you see individuals come Spring.

      Also, I’ve seen crows many times traveling in groups of three. One crow sits in a tree as the two others investigate seeds or whatever. Tree crow seems to be the look out & when he flies off, the other two follow. I’ve seen them change up who is the look out guy too. Then, in the evenings, especially in Summer & Fall, the crows flock together. I especially see large flocks in the fall and filmed one at work around 5 when the crows just kept coming with seemingly no end to the flock.

      1. Surely, it is not just starlings: shoals of fish, a herd of wildebeeste evading predators, and also panicking humans or, even (as I have noticed here in Japan at crowded rush-hour stations, how if one or two people start rushing as though a train is coming, the people about them follow suit, and the people about them follow suit, and…

        1. Fish are weird. I have a 30 gallon tank so they tend to only hang out if they feel scared. I suspect that if I had a larger tank you’d see them bunch up more often. It’s the fantasy of having a bigger tank.

  2. what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds?

    Why isn’t the obvious answer good enough? They get better at anticipating others’ behavior with practice. You flock every day of your life for a few years, I imagine you’d get pretty good at figuring out what a flock is likely to do.

    1. I also wondered why they needed to ask this. If these motions are phase transitions then there is no surprise that the change in motion can happen rapidly across large distances. The speed of the change is not determined by birds knowing what others hundreds of feet away are doing. All they need to know is what their immediate neighbours are doing and that is simple to explain.

      For those wanting to investigate this sort of thing mathematically, the simplest example I can think of that displays something like this behaviour is the Ising model.

      With quite simple systems (but with large numbers of components), complex patterns emerge, purely from the physics and mathematics of the situation. No magic required.

      1. I was thinking the same thing.

        The one model I saw of neural net criticality (with spike data from actual neuron biopsies testing the model!) hypothesized that a system posed close to criticality would be expected a signal transmitted over long distances in a generic net without attenuation or amplification.

        And then if we see a phase change not involving heat spread, something similar (but with possible amplification) should happen.

        The non-collision learning is essential though. I read somewhere that bird’s error rate at landing is atrocious (and see the many fail movies of penguins walking or jumping), but murmurations are quite the opposite as we have a lot of no-collision movements in short time.

      2. But I think the phase change analogy is just begging the question. In super-critical phase changes, the change propagates quickly because the atoms are already at a legal energy state and so can transition immediately.

        In the case of a murmuration, if you assume that each bird merely reacts to an immediate neighbor, then a change across the flock will have to propagate across chains birds 10s or even 100s long: each step in the chain adding its own delay.

        But we don’t see any such cumulative delay in the seemingly simultaneous motion of the murmuration. So either the birds are reacting much more quickly then we expect or there is a more complicated process involved.

        This is where the algorithm research comes in. One possibility is that some sort distributed consensus process somehow running through the flock

  3. Unbelievably awesome, especially as I imagine the evolutionary beginnings and development of such behavior!

  4. My home town of Glasgow used to have a serious starling problem in the 70’s with millions roosting in the city centre at night, especially in the Victorian era bridges, depositing tons of droppings. The problem became so bad the local government body hired specialist companies to get rid of them (they made a fortune in a few years). Urban areas adjoining the city soon became infested too. The murmurations were quite spectacular…as long as you weren’t standing under the flight paths.

    Google “Glasgow starlings” for more info.

    1. Yes, I remember that, while standing waiting in a queue for a bus, everyone carefully stood a metre (well, a yard back then) in from the kerb, to avoid the droppings as the starlings settled on the overhead wires connecting the street lamps.

  5. This is a very, very sad but true story. I have to write this disclaimer because I’m known far and wide as a Big Fat Liar. But this is true, I swear on His noodley appendage.

    I read an article recently about starling murmurations that said any given bird only kept track of the 7 birds in front of it. Thus, if a bird up front zagged, the ones behind it would follow, etc. I likened it to driving into a roundabout at top speed in England and somehow crossing three lanes of cars to an exit. (Yes, I drive like that in the UK. So far, so good.)

    So, I told a co-worker about the article and the fascinating bit about the 7 birds and when I was all done he looked at me and said,

    “What’s a starling?”

    SRSLY? You could have knocked me over with a feather.

  6. You can model this behavior and lots more on NetLogo (Google for site) which is a free modeling program with lots of examples and, for those so inclined, a fairly simple code with which to write programs.

    The next question is – why do starlings (and some swallows) line up on utility wires along well trafficked roads? They almost invariably face the traffic as if they enjoy watching cars going by. Utility lines away from roads are ignored.

  7. * Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.*

    This is fine example of complex behavior criticality. Very visual very clearly there.
    The same process that happens within our brain when we think, when we make decisions.

    And therefore make (strong) discussion of deterministic systems means no-free-will is too arrogant. We simply do not know enough at the moment (this does not means agnostic, just more research).

    Beautiful, at the same time clearly natural, deterministic components with non-deterministic outcomes ….

    1. Look when they split into two clearly defined bodies ? And then when they merged?

      Within our brains, something similar with more variables rather than just 3-dimensional space, things like these moving in and out all the time.

      Beautiful, totally natural, definitely deterministic, but “no free-will”, incompatibilist? — is this question even relevant?

      We still need to know a lot, no need to be another Lord Kelvin …

      All these beautiful things .. clearly natural, beautiful for all of us to see, and eventually understand.

  8. I have been caught under one of these when I was 16 (quite a long time ago!). I was playing football(soccer to Americans) with a group of friends when the sky went dark above us and it started “raining”. We immediately ran for cover.

  9. Jerry,

    By providing the link to the video by Dylan Winter on murmurations you are inadvertently directing people to other videos on the site “Illustra Media” that are against evolution and promoting Intelligent Design…

    1. Indeed, the birdbrains in the rat’s nest known as the Disco Tute are crowing about the hat tip.

      Science cannot explain everything birds do therefore “intelligent design” creationism. Hooray for the Intelligent Designer, blessed be he, for giving us such a spectacular bird show. (He did it for us, you know.)

      According to the Tooters birds are so cool! They have cool eyes (designed), cool feeties (designed) and don’t get me started on feathers (designed, designed, designed!)

      Watch the video again. I’m sure the birds spell out “Ralph Lauren.” Definitely by design!

  10. With regards to the “why” question I am not sure that, in the case of starlings (as opposed to, say, sardine shoals), anti-predator defence is a big part of it.
    Starlings spend the day feeding in small groups of individuals and the big flocks form just prior to roosting. Pre-roosting flocks come together on buildings, trees etc and then fly off to coalesce with other flocks before forming the final ‘murmuration’ at the roost site. It seems to me that flying directly into the roost would be safer than spending a significant amount of time flying about in a big flock above it – even with the confusion factor of all the swirling, and I’d guess that the main function is in terms of communicating the the roost location to conspecifics. This does advertise the roost location to predators too (sparrowhawks and other birds of prey do frequent big starling roosts) but I presume the benefits of communal roosting outweigh this risk from the individuals stand-point.
    Other communal roosting birds such as jackdaws (Corvus monedula) and rooks (C. frugilegus) also advertise their roosts with distinctive calling and flying about prior to settling down for the night.
    Whatever the reason, it is a spectacular behaviour and well worth anyone getting out to their local winter starling roost to witness it.

    1. Also worth adding that when they leave the roost in the morning, when they are presumably also vulnerable to predation by aerial predators, they don’t engage in these massive swirling flights but head directly out in a series of waves.

      “avian Aurora borealis” is a great description

    1. Clearest case of “intelligent design” I’ve ever seen.

      Now, if we could only get Mount Rushmore to do the wave …

  11. In Geneva, where I live, there are a few places with trees in the center of town where starlings roost. In the summer, in the late afternoon and at dusk, there are what I would term “mini murmurations” because the numbers are restrained. As they swirl and turn, sometimes their irridescent wings catch the sunlight and shoot out a fabulous but very short-lived moment of pure gold. I have tried to photograph that, but it is so short lived that by the time I’ve clicked on the shutter, it is too late.

    Here is one of several beautiful videos of murmurations that I love to watch. Select 1080pHD and watch in full screen. Enjoy!

    1. In Australia’s tropical grasslands, Budgerigars sometimes flock in large enough numbers to form, at least, such “mini murmurations”. The brilliant green flash as a flock of hundreds turns in the midday sun is… better than starlings in the dusk.

  12. “I think of them as an avian Aurora Borealis.”

    A wonderful way of describing that massive wave of swirling and swooping. There are many starlings near our urban garden (on the edge of a small city in southwest France). I have set out a couple of baths for them along with food. They do murmurations almost daily late afternoons which are done right over the garden/house. It pays to be altruistic. 🙂

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