Discovering the Secret of the Starling Murmuration...

29 Jan 2018

If you are of a certain age, like me, you’ll no doubt remember the large flocks of over-wintering starling that would return to Glasgow’s city centre at sunset. From a personal perspective, I can still vividly recollect watching the impossibly large, uniform swirling flocks from Eglington St – just outside of the city centre, which sadly is a long-gone spectacle - well to the same extent it was in the 1980s. 


If it wasn't for my father's 'out of town' parking thriftiness, I probably would have missed this amazing show, but even then, as a spry seven year old, I wondered how these birds managed to coordinate their amazing aerial performance. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one seeking an answer to this long-posed question, as the secret behind the starling murmuration has finally been unlocked and surprisingly, the answer to the question is also seven… 


It was a recent study, led by George F. Young of Princeton University that finally unlocked the secret. The team started by collecting photographs of starlings in flight, which were then analysed using a mathematical model to understand the cohesive relationship between neighbouring birds in uneven environments with limited exchange of vocal information. It turns out the key to the issue is balance, and provided each bird pays attention to six or seven of its neighbours, then these large flocks are able to move as a single cohesive group. The study also discovered that the optimal number of neighbouring birds was not dependant on the number of birds in the flock but the shape, and more specifically the thickness of the flock.


Information Source: Plos: Computational Biology 

Image Credit: Greg Seed & Mario Schultz (Pixabay)


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