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If you ever get to see an incredible twisting, swirling, massive group of birds in the sky, you’ve been lucky enough to see a starling murmuration . A murmuration consists of a flock of 500 or up 100,000 starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Starlings are the only bird species that has been found to perform this phenomenon. The murmuring sound of their beating wings along with their flight calls give it the name murmuration.
The common starling is called the European starling in North America. It is a garden bird with a short tail, pointed head, and triangular wings. Starlings appear black in color but have purple and green plumage , and white spots at certain times of the year. Their bills change from black to bright yellow during mating season. Starlings are found in North and Central America, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Their habitat includes open farm fields, city lawns, parks, and grassy suburban areas. They are not usually found in deserts or forests.
Best time to see a murmuration
Starlings often move into their captivating dance around dusk when they’re ready to roost for the night. They roost in cliffs, woodlands, and industrial buildings, in wetlands in the reeds , and near piers. Roosting together in a large flock provides warmth during the cold months of the year.
Starling murmuration typically happens in the autumn months beginning in September and continuing into the month of March. The most fascinating displays of their whirling shapes are found in the months of December and January.
If you go to the starling’s roosting spots at the break of dawn, you can observe them take flight in a murmuration.
Why do starlings fly as one unit?
One starling that senses danger nearby can start the murmuration by taking flight. The rest of the flock will follow and soon the sky is covered with dark bird formations. Scientists believe that the starlings fly together to frighten common enemies like peregrine falcons and hawks. The flock’s large moving shapes are intimidating to the predators.
Even if they attack, each individual starling faces lesser risk.
In addition, a theory suggests that murmuration has something to do with conserving body heat. In winter, over 100,000 birds flock together. As a result, the roosting spot becomes warmer.
Another view on murmuration depends on evolutionary traits. Whenever food is hard to find, individuals need to rely on information from other starlings. Naturally, a large group of birds seems a pretty good method.
Interestingly, concepts of physics have also been fused with murmuration. Scientists applied velocity and the physics of magnetism to the movement of the birds. They found the movement to be similar to how electrons move around magnetic particles.
Even with so many hypotheses, no clear conclusion has been reached. Murmuration baffles scientists even to this day.
How do the starlings fly so close together?
The flock of starlings in a murmuration has no leader. They move in unison and when one starling changes direction, the whole flock responds accordingly. Birds flying in the middle can observe the other starlings all the way out to the edges of the flock. There is room enough for each bird to have the space it needs to twist, turn, and fly.
Through recent video studies and scientific modelling , scientists discovered that if one starling moves, the seven closest starlings adjust their flight. Each small group of seven starlings imitates the nearest group by changing direction. Soon the whole flock is forming a new shape in the sky.
You can even see something similar in sardines, as they move in similar large groups to deter predators. Isn’t it cool how birds and fish do the same thing, but in two completely different habitats?
Murmuration: a large group of birds, usually starlings, that all fly together and change direction together
Plumage: a layer of feathers that covers a bird, and the pattern, color, and arrangement of those feathers
Roost: a place where birds regularly settle or congregate to rest at night, or where bats congregate to rest during the day
Reeds: a tall, slender-leaved plant of the grass family, which grows in water or on marshy ground
Peregrine falcons: a powerful falcon found on most continents, breeding chiefly on mountains and coastal cliffs, and much used for falconry
Intimidating: to have a frightening or threatening effect
Scientific model: a physical, mathematical, or conceptual representation of a system of ideas, events, or processes. Scientists seek to identify and understand patterns in our world by drawing on their scientific knowledge to offer explanations that enable the patterns to be predicted.
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.9
Verela, Charlotte. What is a Bird Murmuration and Why Do They form? November 15, 2018. https://www.lancswt.org.uk/blog/charlotte-varela/starling-murmuration-facts
Why Do Flocks of Birds Swoop and Swirl Together in the Sky? A Biologist Explains the Science of Murmurations. March 31, 2022.
Starling Murmuration. Why Do Starlings Murmurate? November 10, 2016. https://voice.gardenbird.co.uk/starlings-flock-murmuratons/
European Starling. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/lifehistory#