How Do Starling Flocks Create Those Mesmerizing Murmurations?

By Andrea Alfano, a Cornell University junior
February 21, 2013
starling and murmuration - collage Photo collage: European Starling by simonglinn via Birdshare; murmuration photo by ad551 via Creative Commons.

Would you pull over your car just to watch some starlings? A gathering of only a few of these speckled, iridescent-black birds isn’t a very alluring sight—particularly in North America, where these birds are invaders. The European Starling was originally introduced here by a group of well-meaning Shakespeare enthusiasts in 1880, but many Americans now consider them to be pests that serve little purpose other than to dirty car windshields and destroy crops.

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But Grainger Hunt, a senior scientist at the Peregrine Fund, tells a different story in Living Bird magazine. He marvels at the way thousands of the birds gather in flocks called murmurations. They are “a dazzling cloud, swirling, pulsating, drawing together to the thinnest of waists, then wildly twisting in pulses of enlargement and diminution,” he writes. It’s certainly worth stopping your car for, or stopping to watch a video like this one, a YouTube hit recorded over the River Shannon, Ireland:

Almost always, Hunt writes, these aerial spectacles are caused by a falcon near the edge of the flock. It turns out that the beauty of a murmuration’s movements often arises purely out of defense, as the starlings strive to put distance between themselves and the predator.

So how do these masses of birds move so synchronously, swiftly, and gracefully? This isn’t an idle question—it has attracted the attention of physicists interested in how group behavior can spontaneously arise from many individuals at once. In 2010, Andrea Cavagna and colleagues at the National Council of Research and the University of Rome used advanced computational modeling and video analysis to study this question. They found that starling flocks model a complex physical phenomenon, seldom observed in physical and biological systems, known as scale-free correlation.

Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members. But the remarkable thing about starling flocks is their fluidity of motion. As the researchers put it, “the group respond[s] as one” and “cannot be divided into independent subparts.”

When one starling changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to the change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. In essence, information moves across the flock very quickly and with nearly no degradation. The researchers describe it as a high signal-to-noise ratio.

This scale-free correlation allows starlings to greatly enhance what the researchers call “effective perceptive range,” which is another way of saying that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock—a huge benefit for a starling trying to avoid a falcon.

Last week, a new study on starling flocks appeared in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The researchers, led by George Young at Princeton, did their own analysis of murmuration images to see how the birds adjust to their flockmates. They determined that starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors. They also found that the shape of the flock, rather than the size, has the largest effect on this number; seven seems optimal for the tightly connected flocks that starlings are known for.

Imagine a game of telephone: one person passes a message along to the next person, who repeats it to another, and so on. For humans, the telephone message loses information very quickly—that’s what makes the game fun. The first finding, by Cavagna’s team, suggests that very little information is lost in a starling flock. The second finding, by Young’s team, suggests that starlings “play telephone” with their seven nearest neighbors. Somehow they are able to process messages from those seven neighbors all at once, and this is a part of their method for achieving scale-free correlation.

Still, neither finding explains how starlings are capable of such extraordinary collective responses. As the researchers admit, “How starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery to us.”

Murmurations remind us that nature’s beauty can take limitless forms, and can shock and inspire us. A number of commenters on the River Shannon video mention a feeling of connection that they experienced while watching the video. It’s as if seeing that synchrony, that seemingly perfect connection between each starling, also reminds us to value our connection to the world around us, for connection can be truly beautiful.


  • Dr Om Prakash

    What an awesome spectacle !
    I was mesmerised by the graceful, fluid
    and mass movement of the birds; it was like a silent Bolero by Ravel. Can anyone deny a superior intent–call it what you will—after marvelling at this
    swirling ballet in the sky ?

    • Edward R. Badalian

      Don’t give in to astonishment.

    • Lucete Smoes

      The intent is of escaping the falcon. Right?

  • Laura

    This was a very interesting article to read, it is impressive how these birds move as if they are one organism. There’s something both beautiful and eerie about it, I got to see the huge flocks of quelia when I was in South Africa a few years back and that was incredible

    I like to imagine that there is one individual who doesn’t ‘get it’ who is going through the crowd narrowly missing others, “oh, sorry, ‘scuse me, oh, whoops, eek, coming through…”

    • Mike Steffen

      I like the notion of the one that doesn’t ‘get it’ – I’m sure that not all Starlings can manage this scale-free correlation every day of the week! LOL!

  • Paul Rentz

    We had a flock of some quarter million to half million across the street from our house for two years during January to March that would come in at sunset. The website I put down here shows a recent one at a local refuge I witnessed November 1, 2013, the first one I’ve seen since. God’s creation is amazing!

    • Paul Rentz

      If you click on my name, above, there is a video of the most recent flock I saw- and checking my channel will show more.

  • John Olexa

    I absolutely love watching them!! I could spend hours watching LOL. It never gets old.
    I agree with Paul God’s work is amazing.

  • Ilana

    We have too many places in Israel to enjoy again starlings dance .it’s really worth to see

    I am waiting to see them this year again. You are welcom
    Ilana shapira

  • Lisa Dellapietra

    We do have introduced flocks in California and the behavior can be seen in the Sacramento Valley in winter. Not nearly the same numbers, but enough to be breathtaking. I recently saw a huge flock of pintails doing this.

    Similar movement in schools of anchovy and sardines.

  • Emmett


  • Gloria Rodas

    Fabulous. Reminds me of schooling fish… saw it live in cali one time over the flower fields , not so many but I was impressed, just didnt know there was a name for it… thanks for the article.

  • http://MurmurationsofStarlings.... CPolemi

    It appears that the starlings had this planned in advance…if you look at the beautiful illustration on this article, it appears the starling’s feathers have their own “Murmuration” in negative. The white specks in their feathers look like a negative reproduction of the Murmuration. The pattern of birds shown in the illustration appear to form a Starling flying toward the right hand side of the painting. These birds might be far more intelligent than we give them credit for! Yes i am joking but really!
    (Btw beautiful Scientific Illustration.)

  • MRomine

    What time/season of the year do they generally do this? Fall only?

  • CPolemi

    Yes Dr, superior intent.
    Yes Laura, oops eek!! He he!
    Yes Paul, God’s Creation.
    Yes John, God’s Work.
    Yes everyone else! Amazing. Like zebra gathering to look as one large animal but why would starlings do this unless maybe just to show us all God’s Miracles?
    Please excuse me if i said God so many times. :-)

    • MoreThingsOnHeavenAndEarthHoratio

      @Cpolemi what about the other side? What about the worm and the bacterium that are the two most common causes of child blindness in the world? Do you walk into third world hospitals and look at Onchocerciasis and Trachoma and declare “behold, God’s Miracles?”

  • sam prakash

    As the article post explains, God is not the author of this
    spectacle. It is a purely natural phenomenon. Give credit where
    credit is due!

  • Cpolemi

    God made the birds. So sorry you cannot enjoy God your creator.

  • Heather Lurie

    First, let me express my awe and wonder and the spectacle and my thanks for the insightful article. Now my question, which will probably sound trite and silly here, but is there ANY way I can get a print of the collage piece at the opening of the article. It is absolutely magnificent, and, as a bird-lover who is preparing to move away from an area where we do see small murmurations from time to time, to a place where it will never happen, I would be beyond thrilled to have this beautiful piece hanging in my new home here in New Zealand. Thanks for your patience at this (inappropriately placed??) request, and thank you for your time, and again for all the work you do!

    • Hugh

      Hi Heather – thanks for the comment and glad you liked the image at the top. Unfortunately, this is a graphic that was created for the Web and it’s not at a resolution that would allow printing. Best of luck in New Zealand! – Hugh

  • Angela

    Meanwhile, everytime I see starlings I want to own a shotgun. More than dirtying cars and eating crops, they drive out native North American birds. When I see them I picture a future world with only three bird species: starlings, pigeons and English sparrows.

  • davidt

    Our flock understanding of the word “god” is as fascinating as watching the flock fly. Consciousness is both scalable local and non scalable non local. We lose sight of the non scalable rapidly and tend to express in scalable terms which to me is odd but we do that in science, cosmology, biology, physics,as well.

  • Mike Steffen

    I had never heard of a murmuration before – Thank you for the enlightening and well-written article!

  • GungHoBA

    Beautiful and fascinating. Just as fascinating to see humans go into so many contortions to deny there is a God. What is so hard for the ego to swallow? Could it be we don’t want to be held accountable for our lives and actions ? Could it be continuous pride has blinded us to what we don’t want to admit – that we’re broken on the inside and badly in need of a savior that knows the Heart, has the authority to forgive and is ready to come alongside anyone who will ask and is ready to change his or her ways? Some commentors here express simple awe. I believe that shows a heart that is not too full of itself to allow for the possibility of a Creator.

  • In the details

    And some might argue that the human desire to believe in a god is simply an attempt to explain something that’s too complicated to understand.
    Nature is awesome! Stop trying to put it in a box conveniently labeled “God.”

  • http://allaboutbirdsblog Danielle Booth

    I love this article @Cpolemi I think you are brilliant & I also believe it is one of many creations by God.. This article is a perfect example how could anyone see such beauty and not believe in a creator greater than us. My conclusions is
    perhaps it’s the “shift” in the wind that makes these birds dance through the air. They let the wind guide the way

  • Ralph Cringely

    William J Long thought the birds were connected through telepathy. All one mind, moving together. How Animals Talk. Watching them, how tight they are, one has to say that’s plausible. Whatever, it is beautiful.

  • Robert R. Hanger

    It is sad that so many of you use amazing natural phenomena as evidence for the existence of god. You need to read from authors like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen J. Gould to understand that we who are rational and not brain washed by religion do experience a great since of wonder and awe as we observe these kinds of things. So please, do not feel sorry for us “Cpolemi”, in fact we probably feel more awe and wonder as these “rainbows are unweaved” due to the much richer understandings we gain from science.

  • Molly Sherman

    For very interesting information about this phenomena read Rupert Sheldrake’s “Science Set Free”..

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Chuck

    …that spectacular show was brought to you by the superlative “Air Traffic Controlling” of none other then God ! (He’s got it ALL under control…and there’s the proof !)

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]