I work in a nature store that caters to wild bird lovers. It’s in southeastern Pennsylvania and for the last three weeks, 80 percent of my customers have come to me complaining about the European starlings. We got a nip of winter and they appeared in droves.
“They’re scaring off the other birds.”
“They’re eating everything.”
“They just plant themselves and toss the seed to the ground.”
European starlings are an invasive species. In 1890, The American Acclimatization Society brought them to New York’s Central Park. The importation was part of an ill-conceived plan to bring every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to America.
To say the European starling adapted well is an understatement. There are more than 200 million of them. You can find them in every state, including Alaska.
I point my disgruntled customers toward some resources that can help with ideas about how to stop nuisance or bully birds.
Then I ask them to watch a video with me. Even if they still don’t like the idea of starlings eating all their seed, after they watch with me, they at least walk away with a new sense of appreciation for this reluctant European import.
What is a Murmuration?
The video is one of dozens posted to YouTube that show starlings moving in a murmuration—and they’re all spellbinding.
A murmuration is a flock of starlings flying in perfect but seemingly chaotic synchronization. It’s the same kind of organized chaos you see from schools of fish, herds of animals, and even crowds of people. Scientists call it “collective motion” and while they don’t know exactly how it happens or why, it’s a widespread natural phenomenon.
Starlings largely participate in murmurations during the fall and winter months. Around sunset and before they settle down to roost for the night, flocks of starlings will gather and collectively rise and fall in the sky.
Numbers in a murmuration can range from as few as several hundred to as many as several hundreds of thousands of birds. In 1999-2000, an estimated six million starlings formed a single murmuration in Shapwick Health National Nature Reserve in southern England.
It’s Like Picking Out Shapes in Clouds, Only Better
While in Spain, wildlife photographer Daniel Biber took one of the most fantastic pictures of a murmuration ever seen. It shows the whimsy of nature and the persistent need of humans to find patterns in what they see.
The photo shows the unmistakable shape of a large bird—head, tail, wings, and beak… it’s all there. And Biber won a prize for his once in a lifetime photograph at the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.
Seeing shapes in a murmuration is like picking out shapes in clouds, only better. A murmuration moves far faster than any collection of clouds, so when watching one you’re going to find a lot more shapes.
If you search Google Images for murmuration, you’ll find many photographers have captured images of murmurations. Some look like swirling tornados. Others look like bouncing balls or undulating ocean waves. You’ll see the shapes of a heart, a dinosaur, and a whale against a blue sky.
I once came across a photo of a murmuration in The Atlantic that looked like an airplane… more whimsy, I guess.
How and Why Starlings Form Murmurations
Researchers are still working out the science behind murmurations, but they have a strong idea about how starlings can form these tremendously large moving flocks and not slam into one another. They’ve also made headway toward discovering why they form.
How do thousands of birds fly together, make hairpin turns, average a speed of 20 mph, and not crash into one another? Simply put, they rely on the buddy system.
Each bird pays strict attention to the seven other birds closest to it. When one of them changes direction, that group of seven adjusts course with warp-like speed (under 100 milliseconds) and follows. The pulsing ripple effect moves throughout the flock and creates the mesmerizing display we appreciate.
Why they do this is another question, but it makes sense that the reason is steeped in survival.
One reason starlings may have evolved to form murmurations is because they offer protection from other birds looking for a meal.
Imagine a peregrine falcon hunting amidst a murmuration of starlings. You might think it’s an easy meal, but you try picking off a single starling among a thousand birds, each with two flapping wings and changing direction on a whim. It’s a challenge. The falcon, or hawk, or other flying predator can’t get a strong fix on a target and is sometimes forced to abandon the hunt.
A second reason for forming a murmuration could be to seek warmth. Winter is cold, and there is more warmth in a larger flock than a smaller one. Spending the night with several thousand of your closest friends can be cozy on a cold winter’s night.
See also: How Do Birds Survive Winter?
Finally, starlings are an intelligent species. It’s probable they share important information like the location of the nearest food source. With that many friends, a secret doesn’t stay a secret for long.
Where to Find a Murmuration
You can find starlings in all 50 states, which makes your chances of seeing a murmuration pretty good. With knowledge of a flock’s roosting area and some patience, you could be treated to a wondrous and prolonged aerial show. Watch for starlings in areas with large, empty fields.
At the end of the day, the European starling is an invasive species. These birds have some advantages over native birds, which makes it harder for native species to compete for food and shelter. And yes, they pillage our feeders without mercy.
But since they’re here, we may as well bask in the mystery of breath-taking murmurations and take a moment to admire the starling’s spotted and iridescent plumage.
Beauty is everywhere. You just need to look to see it.