Mesmerizing murmuration over The Mosses

November 28, 2019

Individually, starlings might seem unimportant birds.  From a distance many people see them simply as black birds, often noisy and even described in some bird guides as pests.

But from November on through the winter, starlings create amazing murmurations – gatherings of hundreds – even thousands – of birds at dusk, swooping and diving as one entity over fields, woodland and open water.

Naturalists, as well as the general public, have long wondered why starlings gather in murmurations. The reasons include safety in numbers – it’s more difficult for predators to attack such as fast-moving, complicated entity that may not even be perceived as individual creatures – and for warmth. The birds gather over a roosting site until they decide it’s safe to land. They pack together overnight in groups of 500 birds per cubic metre or more. One theory is that the birds gather to share information about foraging, similar to honeybees that share information about the location of the flowers with the best nectar.

Researchers have used modern techniques such as high-powered video analysis, and computational modelling to study starling murmurations. These have given scientists insights that the murmuration patterns are similar to cutting edge physics. Italian physicists have related the flights to “critical transitions” – systems that are ready to become instantly and completely transformed such as iron in a magnet.

The researchers found that the starlings worked to match the direction and speed of just their nearest neighbours while staying about one wing span apart. As a result, each bird in the flock is connected to every other bird. The physicists describe this as a “phase transition”. Depending on the size and speed of the flock, weather conditions and other contributing factors that are still not clearly understood, the pattern of the murmuration changes.

While that research may provide greater understanding of the starlings’ flight patterns, it doesn’t diminish the sense of mystery and wonder that people feel when watching the swirling, shape-changing magic of a starling murmuration at dusk on a winter evening.

You can often see starling murmurations over Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses and the neighbouring Morris’ Bridge Fields at dusk from November until the birds fly back to their northern summer homes in the spring.

Do you have your own photos of a starling murmuration? Share them on @meresandmosses

More about starlings:

Not quite the black colour they appear at a distance, up close starlings’ feathers have purple and green reflections with creamy-coloured tips. Birds are generally about 22cm long with a wingspan of 37-42cm.

Starlings build simple nests in holes in trees or crevices in buildings and feed on open ground. Their song is a noisy mixture of whistles and they often mimic other birds. They can be noisy and quarrelsome; their walk has been described a “jaunty and shambling”. Starlings produce one brood of 4-6 blue eggs, often at odd times of the year.

The starling population has fallen by more than 80% over the past few decades. Loss of pasture land and increased use of farm chemicals has created a shortage of food and nesting sites. UK starlings are joined each autumn by thousands of birds from northern Europe that fly in from as far away as Iceland and Russia, creating the mass flocks that murmurate throughout the winter.

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