Murmurations

I like this word murmuration which is defined as the utterance of low continuous sounds.  You find it used in different ways, such as the murmuration of crowds, the inarticulate murmuration of prayer. But the usage I find most intriguing is the murmuration of starlings.

Common starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common starling Sturnus vulgaris

Those speckled, iridescent-black birds flock in swooping, harmonious groups of thousands of birds called murmurations. I suppose they do this throughout the year, but in Paradelle I tend to notice this behavior in early autumn.

Starlings don’t have a great reputation. These European invaders were introduced to America by a group of well-meaning but ecologically-ignorant Shakespeare enthusiasts in 1880. They decided that all birds mentioned by William Shakespeare should be in North America. Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, Part 1 and so 100 of them were released into New York’s Central Park.

They are now generally considered pests in this country that destroy crops.

But their murmurations that look like swirling clouds that pulsate, twist and get wider and thinner are intriguing to watch. How do the birds do it?

I read online that this can be caused by a threat, such as a raptor nearby, but I have seen them flock while walking in a woods and in my backyard trees without any threats seen. In fact, I learned many years ago that if they were roosting in trees nearby and I clapped loudly they would usually take off. Maybe a loud clap sounds like a gun.

Many scientists who don’t normally pay attention to birds – computer scientists and physicists – became interested in how group behavior spontaneously arises from many individuals at once. Schools of fish are another group behavior studied. The scientists might call this “scale-free correlation” but I call it awesome.

The studies indicate that, surprisingly, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. You probably have seen flocks of geese that seem to have a “leader,” but flocking is actually governed by the collective actions of all of the flock members.

But watching these murmurations, as opposed to the straight-ahead flock of geese flying in formation seems so fluid that it approaches magic.

I don’t want to doubt the science but when one starling changes direction or speed, the idea that each of the other birds responds to the change simultaneously is remarkable. What a communication system! No wonder it is studied. Information moves across the flock very quickly, with nearly no degradation in what I would describe in one of my communication courses as a “high signal-to-noise ratio.” and “scale-free correlation” and “effective perceptive range.” The simple way of saying this is that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

And yet even the researchers admit, that how starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery. Maybe that is a good thing because nature’s beauty in its limitless forms should surprise, shock and inspire us.  synchrony, that seemingly perfect connection between each starling, also reminds us to value our connection to the world around us, for connection can be truly beautiful.

Murmurations remind us that nature’s beauty can take limitless forms, and can shock and inspire us. The synchrony, of the starlings or a school of fish, or bees communicating about food sources, is a reminder about the connections to the world around us that many of us have lost.


I wrote a bit more about the science side of murmurations on yet another blog.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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