Ever watch starlings fly in perfect synchronization and wonder how they do it? A flock of about a hundred Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) gather in the Tulip Poplar tree across the back drive from my house. I savor the time this tree is here, because I know the owner of the house wants to cut the tree down.
I watch the Starlings fly in synchronization. They turn and swerve in unison. Each bird seems to know what the others or a leader will do and mimic the movement a split second later. Of course, I had to research the how and whys behind this phenomena.
When Starlings flock together in the sky and twist and turn, swerve and dive, the formation is called a murmuration. Murmuration means the act of murmuring. The word comes from late Middle English word for ‘to murmur’. I won’t try to figure out how this relates to birds flocking.
What is a Starling Murmuration?
Murmuration happens when birds fly together then drop down to their roosts for the night. It doesn’t happen during the breeding season. Probably because the nesting pairs have babies to take care of and the adults have to sit on the nests all night. Furthermore a predator could watch the birds actions as they returned to their nests and know exactly where tasty baby Starlings slept. But Starlings murmurate even when no birds of prey are around.
When Starling Murmurations Happen
So, murmuration happens in the late autumn through late winter, and not in the breeding season. Winter is when the huge flocks gather. In the Starlings original home, Europe and the United Kingdom, murmurations occur October through March. The spectacle peaks December to January.
In the U.K., Starlings from continental Europe arrive when the winter is colder and easterly winds blow toward the British Isles. Across the pond, Starling flocks can number millions of birds.
Furthermore murmuration happens before night falls. Sunset is the time the birds gather in flocks and then leap into the sky to fly in synchronized display.
Scientists don’t seem to know why Starlings dance together in the sky before they settle in for a night’s sleep. Scientists have created computer models of flocking birds. They have postulated theories. But they still don’t know why.
Maybe the birds do it for fun. Do they need a reason? Do we need a reason to watch in delight as they flash dance and flash mob through the evening sky? The only way to know for sure would be to ask Starlings why they do it, if they would even tell us. Maybe it’s a secret.
Citizen Science and Starling Murmurations
These last few weeks, I went outside or watched from inside the house as the Starlings gathered in the Tulip tree, then fly in the sky. I noted the time, temperature, weather conditions, and any other information I thought would be scientifically relevant. I used the Grinnell Scientific Nature Journal model.
To find a Starling Murmuration Display
- Start with your local birding groups
- Check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
- Check your neighborhood. My local display happens over my backyard. I lucked out.
- Where have you seen large numbers of Starlings? Electrical wires and light poles are hangouts in my area. Check tall trees in late afternoon and early evening.
Questions to Ask and Answer in Your Nature Journal
- What trees do they use for roosts? Evergreens or bare deciduous?
- What time do they stage a murmuration?
- How often does the flight display happen? Every day?
- How does weather affect the murmuration? Is it windy? Cloudy? Clear and sunny? Rainy?
- Is the breeding season over?
- Gauge how many birds. I use a hand counter. (Hand counter on Amazon.com)
- Take videos of the display.
- What about the summer, do you see flocks of Starlings?
Who said winter is boring never was awed by Starlings playing in a evening sky. I hope these words inspire you to keep looking up. And to once again marvel at Earth’s goodness and Beauty.
More Information of Starling Murmurations
Starling Murmurations: the Science Behind One of Nature’s Greatest Display
Related Posts on Winter Birding
Nature Journal Keeping Posts
Grinnell Scientific Nature Journal by Donna L. Long (buy the book on Lulu.com)