Although your first instinct when you see these photos might be, “Oh god,” we promise that it’s not an upcoming extreme weather event or some alien species coming to invade Earth. (Given that it’s 2020, you’re forgiven for thinking anything that’s not obviously good is probably horrific.) In fact, these are actually photos taken this week of a starling murmuration in Scotland.
What Is a Starling Murmuration?
A starling murmuration is a spectacular natural phenomenon that consists of hundreds and sometimes thousands of these birds — which appear black from a distance but upon close inspection also have plumage that is glossy shades of purple and green — filling up the sky in coordinated flight. Yes, that’s right: These little fellas swoop, dive, and whirl in perfect synchrony.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a UK-based nature conservation charity, besides their colour, you can identify starlings by their short tail, pointed head, and triangular wings. They fly fast and direct and are confident on the ground as well. The organisation describes them as being “noisy and gregarious,” which makes a lot of sense, considering that they willingly decide to go out all at once and grace us with their aerial formations. Starlings spend a good chunk of the year in flocks.
Starlings Are All Over the U.S., Too
The murmuration captured in these photos took place in Scotland, but you can find starlings in the U.S. as well. And while we may admire them in this blog, starlings are actually considered an invasive species in America. Per New York Invasive Species Information, they were purposely introduced in New York City in the 1890s by Shakespeare enthusiasts who “wanted to see all the birds mentioned in his creations represented in North America.” That’s some fandom.
Why Starlings Flock in Murmurations
Ornithologists and other experts believe that starlings flock in murmurations for various reasons. Some contend that they do this to ward off and confuse predators, adopting a “safety in numbers” strategy. Others believe that starlings engage in this behaviour to stay warm. Still another theory states that the birds could be coming together to share information on roosting sites.
There Is a Magic Number
Interestingly, even though a murmuration can involve thousands of starlings, the birds apparently aren’t coordinating with every other bird in the formation. In 2008, Italian scientists found evidence that suggests that starlings coordinate with their nearest six to seven neighbours. To arrive at this conclusion, the scientists photographed and analysed 10 independent “flocking events” at a railway station in Rome. They then used stereometric and computer vision techniques to measure birds’ individual position in 3D in the murmurations.
‘7’ Is Apparently Key for Efficiency
Another study from Princeton in 2013 offered evidence that starlings chose seven nearby friends in order to strike an optimal balance between responding to social cues from specific birds and the need to conserve energy. In other words, per Princeton, in order for a flock to be efficient, the optimal number of neighbours each starling should pay attention to is seven.
The Mystery Remains, But We Can Still Enjoy the Show
At the end of the day, the exact reason for reasons why starlings flock in murmurations is still unknown. But as we mentioned, scientists have lots of ideas about it, so we’re sure that this isn’t the last we’ll hear about the matter. And though we still might not have the answer to “why,” it doesn’t mean we can’t marvel at their sky acrobatics while scientists figure it out.