A Murmuration of Starlings

Even the names in the murmured phrase,

murmuration of starlings,

“murmuration,”

“starlings,”

the two words flowing as one . . .

Excerpt From Wired Magazine, 2011:

What makes possible the uncanny coordination of these murmurations, as starling flocks are so beautifully known? Until recently, it was hard to say. Scientists had to wait for the tools of high-powered video analysis and computational modeling. And when these were finally applied to starlings, they revealed patterns known less from biology than cutting-edge physics.

Starling flocks, it turns out, are best described with equations of “critical transitions” — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.

At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple. When a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality is created and maintained.

It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.

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0 Responses to A Murmuration of Starlings

  1. Bill Chisholm says:

    Interesting that on the morning of this post… as I stepped out of the tub.. the air was suddenly filled with starlings.. they weren’t in the Escher like clouds, but flying closer to the ground, landing in the Russian olives and then on some signal flying off… there was more singularity to the process than you see in the high flying tango.

    A few years back driving by one of those livestock concentration camps, known in these parts as CAFOs or industrial dairies… a flock of starlings suddenly lifted off the ground and smashed into my van… what a shock.. feathers and carcasses everywhere. Someone missed a call.

    I have seen robins fly in smaller groups, maybe 20 or so birds and move with a similar one mindedness. Not long ago doing some construction at a farm.. I saw a flight of robins lift off as a cloud, they were joined for a few moments by some pigeons that moved in the same flow.

    Ducks and geese are a daily sight…. the ducks coming into land often bump into each other, though it doesn’t seem to impact their flight.

    Maybe it all has to do with some energy field developed in the cloud of flight.

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