Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Murmuration of Starlings
One of Nature's Mysteries and Great Wonders

No one knows why they do it. Yet each fall, tens of thousands of starlings dance in the twilight above England and Scotland.
The birds gather in shape-shifting flocks called murmurations, having migrated in the millions from Russia and Scandinavia to escape winter's frigid bite. Scientists aren't sure how they do it, either. 
The starlings' murmurations are manifestations of swarm intelligence, which in different contexts is practiced by schools of fish, swarms of bees and colonies of ants. As far as I am aware, even complex algorithmic models haven't yet explained the starlings' aerobatics, which rely on the tiny birds' quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds to avoid aerial collisions and predators in the giant flock.
Two young women were out for a late afternoon canoe ride and fortunately one of them remembered to bring her video camera. What they saw was a wonderful murmuration display, caught in this too-short video.



  1. I occasionally see small murmurations like these here in the D.C. area. The flocks started appearing when I was about 12 years old; before that, we hadn't seen those flocks. At first, we were alarmed because we had seen Hitchcock's film The Birds.

    I hate what starlings do to the finish on my car and to the finches' nests on my front porch, however.

  2. The short film captured a stunning example of "Group Intelligence" at work as the text says.

    More proof -- to me -- of how little we mortals really know, and how limitless, infinitely inventive,incredibly expansive -- and deeply mysterious and wonderful -- is The Mind of God.

    God reveals Himself anew to each person who has enough curiosity and openness to see His Creation with wonder, delight -- and awe -- each day.

    ~ FreeThinke

  3. Did you now, by the way, that despite all the skill and knowledge acquired over countless millennia, no scientist or biologist has yet figured out how a cat purrs -- or why?

    That ought to humble even the haughtiest who want believe that nothing real exists outside human perception and intelligence.

    Just a thought.

    ~ FreeThinke

  4. To me, group intelligence is an example of complexity that can arise from many simple elements. Mysterious and wonderful, certainly, but for the opposite reason (for me).

    We probably don't know why or how cats purr because it doesn't seem to matter much, so we haven't investigated. More incredible is the fact that we have very little idea why or dream, or why we have to sleep.

  5. Kitties' purring has to be one of the most beautiful sounds!

    Cats purr for various reasons -- and sometimes for no reason.

  6. Nothing like a soft cat purring. Oh wait that sounds like my Misty.

  7. Hello, Jez,

    Well, if you want to know, I'm most interested in why we seem to have a compelling urge to dream up "good" reasons for treating each other horribly. It's a running theme in my head.

    Whatever it is, it's nothing as simple as "kill or be killed."

    As for the Starlings -- and the Geese, the Swallows, the Robins, the Hummingbirds, the Lemmings, the Elephants and every other migrant species -- I see organization and deliberation at work - purpose driven activity. This helps to bolster my belief that for the most past nothing happens purely by accident. There is "Intelligent Design," if you will, in every facet of life which includes the molecular structure of, apparently, inanimate objects like rocks, pebbles, gravel and sand.

    When we speak of "God," which is inflammatory in the extreme for many, we should define what we mean. I've explained my understanding of what and who God is any number of times. It doesn't jibe with the traditional concept most people of faith cherish and stoutly defend in the face of Reason.

    I want to find reasons TO believe, just as you appear to want the opposite. I think, however that what both of us yearn for is the TRUTH whatever it may be.

    Tee murmuration of starlings is beautiful and mysterious enough to spark much contemplation along with the simple enjoyment of seeing such an unusual phenomenon.

    ~ FreeThinke

  8. "kill or be killed" is not a good description of evolution, if that's what you're referring to.

    It might be that the group behaviour was desired by some creator, and the near-thoughtless automaton individuals created accordingly to achieve it; or it might be that natural selection favoured ever more elaborate group-think and hive-minds, and produced individuals ever more finely tuned to produce it. The difference is smaller than you might think, especially if you harbour a brutalised misunderstanding of the latter.

    I suppose you would counter that I harbour a brutalised misunderstanding of the former!

    "murmuration of starlings is beautiful and mysterious enough to spark much contemplation along with the simple enjoyment of seeing such an unusual phenomenon."


  9. I just looked at it again for probably sixth or seventh time, and just realized it reminds me of elementary school science projects with magnets and steel filings.

    The orderly patterns into which a diffuse clump of steel filings suddenly and dramatically form on a piece of paper when subjected to the force of a magnet or magnets placed beneath the paper are reminiscent -- at least superficially -- of the murmuration patterns formed by the birds.

    I suppose this must be what inspired Daphne DuMaurier to write her morbid short story on which Hitchcock's much more famous, but less interesting film was based.

    ~ FreeThinke

  10. By the way, Jez, if you're still anywhere near, I wasn't thinking of Evolution, but rather the very human urge to retaliate in kind -- or worse -- if one is attacked. I can see, however, how you might easily think I was making an oblique reference to Evolution.

    Certainly acts of aggression and retaliation set up long chain reactions that last sometimes for centuries -- even longer -- and always with tragic results.

    It's another paradox. How might one be a pacifist without allowing himself -- and his loved ones -- to be trampled to death by barbarians?

    I wish I knew the answer. Antagonism seems part of our bone and blood, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

    ~ FT

  11. Fascinating.

    We have European Starlings here, but they are considered an invasive species and are occasionally poisoned by the USDA.

    I've always been fascinated by the way they seem to congregate it intersections. I've been told that it is because the turbulence of vehicles passing to and fro gathers and makes it easier for them to feed on bugs.

    No idea if it is true or not, but they do have a tendency to windsurf your car, swooping down and riding the air up across your hood and windshield, although I've never had one strike it.

    As far as purring goes... I recently learned at a big cat show at a fair here that cats can either roar or purr, but never both.




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