Murmuration refers to the phenomenon that results when hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starlings fly in swooping, intricately coordinated patterns through the sky.
Maybe you've seen a murmuration video before. But this one is especially beautiful. It was shot earlier this month in Wales, at Cosmeston Lakes in the Vale of Glamorgan, and posted on Facebook by the BBC Cymru Wales.
Why do I love this short video so much?
It's all about science. Just how do the starlings manage to fly in such an amazingly coordinated way?
A few years ago, George F. Young and his colleagues investigated starlings' "remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information" — a nice description of what goes on in a murmuration.
Going in, Young et al. already knew that starlings pay attention to a fixed number of their neighbors in the flock, regardless of flock density — seven, to be exact. Their new contribution was to figure out that "when uncertainty in sensing is present, interacting with six or seven neighbors optimizes the balance between group cohesiveness and individual effort."
Young et al. analyzed still shots from videos of starlings in flight (flock size ranging from 440 to 2,600), then used a highly mathematical approach and systems theory to reach their conclusion. Focusing on the birds' ability to manage uncertainty while also maintaining consensus, they discovered that birds accomplish this (with the least effort) when each bird attends to seven neighbors.
In following this role of seven, then, the birds are part of a dynamic system in which the parts combine to make a whole with emergent properties — and a murmuration results.
That's just incredibly cool.
Also, starlings are essentially an invasive species in this country. They were famously introduced to North America at New York City's Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare enthusiasts who wanted all the bird species ever mentioned by Shakespeare to inhabit this continent.
With starlings, they certainly succeeded: 200 million of these birds now inhabit North America. They aren't welcomed by everyone. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology puts it, starlings in the U.S. are "sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness." In this Scientific American piece, they're even called a "menace."
The murmuration video invites us to see them with fresh eyes.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, will be published in March. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape