Week of October 16, 2022 – October 22, 2022
by Bridget Jones, Environmental Educator
They appear right before dusk, over fields and wetlands in the cool fall air. As you look towards the horizon, you might see what appear to be low, quickly moving clouds approaching. At a closer range, they become a series of twisting shapes in the air, like abstract art come to life. While it sounds like something out of fantasy, this phenomenon is a murmuration, an awe-inspiring example of the power of group dynamics in nature.
While a murmuration can look like a single massive organism, it is actually composed of thousands of individual birds moving as a collective unit. The birds most famous for murmurations are European Starlings, but other birds fly in synchronized flocks as well, such as Tree Swallows. When the weather gets colder, these birds come together in roosts to share warmth, food, and protection from predators. Just before settling in for the night, the flock lifts off in unison, creating mesmerizing shapes as the birds dive, soar, and change direction together. Some of the most spectacular murmurations occur when the birds are trying to avoid a hunting falcon or hawk. The group responds to the predator’s attacks by moving away in a single wave, causing the flock to contract and expand in new shapes.
Exactly how murmurations work is a mystery that biologists and physicists have been trying to unravel for decades. Research has shown that birds in murmurations respond to the movements of their neighbors. Specifically, each bird looks to their seven closest neighbors in the flock for cues about where to fly. This creates a ripple effect as the movements spread throughout the flock. There is an evolutionary advantage to this kind of movement: although only a few birds might see an approaching falcon, all members of the flock can quickly respond to the threat through shared movements. However, there is still much to learn about the impressive synchronization of murmurations. Although we do not yet fully understand the science behind murmurations, watching them unfold in the sky inspires curiosity about the lives of birds and wonder at the patterns of nature.
Want to see a murmuration in action? Check out a video of murmurations at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge taken by Tom Meier, and a flock of tree swallows at Virginia’s Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge taken by Anna Stunkel.
Check out the links below to learn more about starling murmurations: