A Smoke-Swirl of Birds

A video of thousands of birds flying as a single coordinated, amorphous group stirs up questions about how they do it.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef (an unusual nickname for Jennifer) got her master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses. After four years of diving off the Gulf...

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Nov 10, 2011

A large flock of starlings over fields near Gretna, LouisianaWIKIMEDIA COMMONS, WALTER BAXTER

When two young girls set out for a canoe ride on the River Shannon in Ireland in late October, they couldn’t have imagined what they would see—and catch on camera: thousands of starlings swooping and turning over the water, akin to a massive ball of bait fish being chased by a hungry seal. The group, known as a murmuration, demonstrates impeccable coordination, as it must to avoid the bumping and crashing of the individual birds.

In 2008, researchers took a closer look at starling murmurations in an attempt to determine exactly how they harmonize their movements. Measuring the positions of individuals in flocks of up to 2,700 birds, the researchers found that the birds kept their distance from each other—a minimum distance of approximately their wing span, to be exact—and that the flocks tended to be...

Additional research has revealed that starling flocks move in patterns reminiscent of cutting-edge physics equations, Wired Science reported. Specifically, their movements can be illustrated with equations of “critical transitions,” which describe systems that can change in an instant, like a liquid evaporating into a gas. When the flock turns, it turns in unison, but for each individual bird, it’s simply a matter of following its neighbor. Still, there are many unanswered questions about how the flock moves, and the answers may have implications beyond flocking birds, according to Wired, including the behavior of proteins and neurons.

But for now, let’s forget about the science, just for a minute, and enjoy the awe-inspiring dance of the starlings that the two girls met that day on the River Shannon.

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

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