Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Starling Murmurations — Science Mystery

Starling Murmurations — Science Mystery

Starling is a type of bird that has its serious style. Characteristics making them unique are that they can lay blue eggs and recognize each other using their chirps. Besides, they can put on an aerial display to rival the Red Arrows.

When they travel, their wingbeats create a sound for which they are popular as starling murmurations. It looks like a sky dance where you can see them gathering together, swooping and twisting in one spectacular swarm.

The formation consists of at least 500 birds, whereas it can feature up to a million birds in the UK. This number is much higher overseas, increasing up to five million.

However, why does this formation happen? Do they not collide with each other? Where can they be seen? This article lets you know all these questions answered.

What is a Starling?

Starling is a bird with shiny black, green, and purple feathers. These are small garden birds available in your garden and other local green spaces.

Usually, the plumage seems black from a distance. However, these are very glossy birds, with a sheen of purple and green feathers when you look closely. They spend most of their time in flocks, especially while gathering to roost or around the breeding and nesting seasons.

What is Starling Murmurations?

Murmurations are a group of Stirling birds who gather in the sky and do beautiful things like swooping in beautiful shape-shifting clouds. A small group from the same area comes together before dusk above a communal roosting site. After that, the group continues growing larger than earlier, moving in unison in an aerial dance. You will see them as a gorgeous shape against the waning daylight.

Why Do Starling Murmurations Happen?

Humans have been experiencing starling murmurations for many thousands of years. However, still, they do not have a proper explanation for the starling murmurations. However, we have given here two theories to explain why these birds could flock together this way.

  • They do the formation to keep themselves protected from predators. 
  • In addition, they also do the formation to keep warm at night. 
First, you should know how their aerial ballet protects them from predators like sparrowhawks and buzzards. Prof Anne Goodenough from the University of Gloucestershire explained that as a starling bird and part of a large flock, one must want to decrease the chances of becoming dinner through the 'dilution effect.' Besides, one must not want to be the bird targeted by predators in a crowd. So this formation has many eyes, helping them to spot any predators.

However, their sleepiness and other features don't explain why they form a series of unpredictable 3D shapes in the sky. Instead, it is the reason why these birds murmurate to turn any predator's laser-focus vision against them.

According to Goodenough, predators hunt by getting 'focus lock' on any specific starling and attacking them. It is because they cannot fly into a flock with their talons out and wish to be alive in such cases. However, while they form an intricate display, predators can not launch it at one bird, and attacking a whole flock seems like you are trying to juggle with soot.

Are Starlings The Only Birds That Murmurate?

No, they are not the only birds that murmurate. However, because many other birds flock together in groups like the phenomenon, fishes show the same swarm behavior. They use the same 'safety in numbers' tactic to protect themselves from big groups.

However, the term 'murmuration 'is especially for groups of starlings for their innovative way of movement and the beautiful sky art. There are over 200 million available in North America singing their chirpy little songs.

Mario Pesendorfer, a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Forest Ecology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, says that its core feeling is a sense of awe. According to him, people can experience visual patterns when many of them do a similar thing.

The Secrets Behind Murmurations:

In the 1930s, ornithologist Edmund Selous said that these birds use some sort of telepathy to let others know about their flying intentions. According to him, the birds think collectively at the same time.

However, in the 1950s, scientists studied different insects, fish, and other collective animals to judge their behavior. The authors of a 2015 paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences write that it is a rapid transmission of local behavioral response to neighbors.

According to Pesendorfer, the phenomenon is self-organized, indicating that each bird's little behavioral rules help to scale up to the large group. Therefore, if you want to know about their behavior, you need to know what each bird is doing and what rules they follow.

In 2013, a mechanical and aerospace engineer came with her team to collaborate with physicists in Italy to study murmurations. Naomi Leonard said that in a flock with 1,200 birds, a bird can't keep track of the other 1,199 birds.

The Italian physicists have over 400 photos they took from several videos to plot the position and speed of birds. Every bird keeps tabs on seven closest neighbors and ignores others.

The Three Things in Control:

The three things birds maintain are:

  • An attraction zone 
  • A repulsion zone 
  • Angular alignment 

According to the Scientists, the birds make the formation to confuse and discourage predators. In this case, they use noise, motion, and sheer numbers. As a result, the formation looks like they are almost one, and it seems like a type of lock-step. In this regard, Pesendorfer says that they come with a much higher temporal resolution than others, indicating that they can share any information quicker than humans.

How can the birds keep their flock warm?

The aerial display is not the thing that creates heat. But, according to a few zoologists, they gather heat ahead of a cold night when the sky dance happens before roosting.

According to the details of Goodenough, this bird can offer warmth more while roosting as part of a big flock than being a part of a small flock.

However, we cannot trust the theory they gather to protect themselves from plummeting temperatures. As per the study of Goodenough, a slight correlation exists between temperature and the size of the displays, and it means that they are primarily an anti-predator adaptation.

Why Do The Birds Not Hit Each Other In A Murmuration?

Generally, you will collide with somebody when you are in a crowd of a few hundred tightly-packed runners. So how is it possible for these birds to keep their distance from each other during a murmuration?

The reason is that the birds have good social-distancing instincts. According to Goodenough, they can maintain space from one another using their incredible vision and reactions. As a result, they can visually understand what is happening around them. In addition, they come with strong motor responses, helping them manage it.

A few places like Derbyshire's Middleton Moor, Somerset's Ham Wall, and Belfast's Albert Bridge host the phenomenon every year. Goodenough says that you can experience it where you do not expect it to occur.

Generally, it occurs between October and March, but you will see it mainly around the beginning of November until the end of January. These can occur in Lancashire and Merseyside also. The birds can pop up in almost any place, even above the middle of the city. 

We have given here a few of the best spots in Lancashire and Merseyside, including:

  • Brockholes Nature Reserve, 
  • Preston North Pier, Blackpool 
  • Lunt Meadows, Sefton
  • RSPB Leighton Moss, Silverdale

The Endnote:

Generally, one bird is not aware of everyone else in the phenomenon. However, forming 3D reconstructions helps every bird to interact with its nearest 6 or 7 birds and move according to them. The phenomenon happens just before roosting, for which you can see one by a large tree or artificial structure like a pier.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  • Q. When can you see the phenomenon?

If you want to view this phenomenon, you have to go in the early evening throughout autumn and winter. These small-sized birds gather in enormous flocks in the sky, and then they swoop around at sunset periods.

  • Q. When is the best time to see the phenomenon?

They generally make the formation during autumn and winter. Almost all migrant starlings come by late November/early December. As a result, these months have become the prime time to see a murmuration at its peak. Ensure that you come before dusk unless you miss the big event from start to finish.

  • Q. How long does a murmuration of starlings last?

The phenomenon usually lasts up to 45 minutes. However, in some cases, the phenomenon lasts a few minutes only. Besides, you will never know when the end of a murmuration will happen as it occurs suddenly. But, then, something prompts the bids to stream into their roosts, a beautiful sight in itself.

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