Starlings make for some of the coolest spectacles in wildlife. They put together a flock that turns, swoops and wheels around like no one else. They have caught the fascination of commuters and pedestrians who have stopped in their tracks and just stared in the skies above.
Also known as the common starling, these birds are originally from the UK and Europe, although they have found their way to other parts of the world. They get their name from the cream-colored speckles on their black wings, which look like stars. Its genus name, Sturnus, means "little star.
So these huge splotches of starlings look like an aerial school of fish, but ornithologists have an actual name for this kind of event - murmuration. In one of these hundreds, maybe thousands, of birds get together to make these ever-changing shapes. They're constantly on the move with no rhyme and reason.
Starlings fly at a cool 22 mph, but when they have to move as a group their response will have them jump up to 55 mph. That's a change similar to when you see a crowd doing the wave at a sporting event. This self-organized wave has a name, by the way - the Trafalgar effect, after the wave of flag signals made famous from the Battle of Trafalgar.
The shapes lucky photographers capture them in are nothing short of amazing. Whether they be a gorilla-shaped flock or something more bizarre, you can't help but wonder if you're looking at birds or the weirdest dust storm ever.
You may have seen them before in their complex coordinated patterns diving up and down in your local skies. People have posted many videos of starling murmurations for your viewing pleasure. The one thing the videos might not answer is just how the starlings move in such perfect harmony?
One hypothesis was made by an ornithologist in the 1930s that ridiculously said that the flocks worked together through telepathy. Other researchers believe that the starlings work on basic rules similar to how traffic works so that they avoid collisions. It could have to do with the bird's anatomy, who their closest neighbor is mid-flight, or what distance they're keeping themselves from each other.
Earlier in the 2010s scientists still thought starling murmuration was a bit of a mystery. It was only when better, high-powered video and computer modeling made it possible to analyze the flocks. Once they applied the new tech to starlings they found new patterns that mixed biology with physics.
Starling watchers and scientists both noticed one thing - one bird affects the seven closest neighbors. Those winged neighbors, in turn, affect the other seven, and so on and so forth through the entire flock. New computer models also suggested that it might have to do with the amount of sky the bird can see.
The constant changing of shapes made by starlings is just another example of how individual organisms interact and exchange energy through mechanisms like information exchange or signaling. In murmuration's case, the signaling that's hardwired into their brains makes the rules. The interesting part is that you could never really put together all the parts of an individual bird's actions to make the form of the flock.
Humans have to practice and plan out any type of aerial maneuver that's remotely similar to that. Starlings make us look like chumps, however, because they don't have to do any of that to make their patterns. Some scientists think that murmurations are systems that are "on the edge" - ready to change in an instant (think of how liquids turn into gases).
The fact they can transform in a snap is a huge survival skill for them. Their ability to transition makes it so that they have this odd sort of armor, like when crystals are forming. This type of phase transition is considered a cool example of chaos theory at work in nature.
The limitless shapes of murmurations inspire us to stop and look at the skies to pull up our cameras or phones. Even with all the new research, we've just reached the surface at how these birds can pull off these extraordinary responses by the thousands. What matters right now is in how their near-perfect connection reminds us of the power of nature.