Watch a Mesmerising Swarm of Starlings

Called a murmuration, this defensive behaviour is inspiring computer programming and other applications.

Flocks of acrobatic starlings have long delighted observers, from Shakespeare to the present day. The birds—sometimes by the thousands—often seem to move as one, coursing through the air at breakneck speeds, turning on an instant.

We recently published video of a beautiful starling swarm in the Netherlands. So many wings can be heard flapping in that video that it's easy to get why starling swarms are called murmurations.

This week, another mesmerising video of a starling swarm was published, this time in the UK's Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire (see above). That video shows more intriguing patterns in the sky as thousands of birds twist and turn in unison.

Starling murmurations tend to occur most often at dusk, when the birds gather together for the night. They can consist of a few hundred or tens of thousands of individuals.

Scientists think the rapidly changing directions may confuse predators.

Resembling the smoke monster from Lost, the mechanics of the swarm-like behavior aren't fully understood. But recently scientists have determined that murmurating starlings coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbours.

In other words, when one bird changes speed or direction, the seven closest birds respond in kind. In this way, information spreads across the flock rapidly.

Such swarm intelligence is also increasingly being tapped by human beings, who are using the rapid, adaptive technology to program computers and develop robots, among other applications. Swarms are also how science fiction writers often depict the future of nanotechnology.

Watch: Another video, this time from the Netherlands, reveals another look at starling murmurations. This video is from our Shortfilm Showcase series.

Brian Howard is a senior writer covering environment, science, technology,
and other topics.

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