A Murmuration of Starlings

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At this time of year, large numbers of European starlings form vast flocks just before sunset. Together, they provide one of nature’s most impressive displays. Moving in perfect union, they twist and turn to create synchronized patterns across the sky above their roosting sites.

Very often, these displays, called a murmuration, are performed in front of the vast orange backdrop that one only gets with a late autumn evening.

At a distance, the starling is quite an uninteresting looking bird, quite similar to a blackbird but slightly duller, perhaps.

One needs to get close to appreciate the ivory white spots and the iridescent sheen to their wings.

Theories about the flight-pattern

These captivating flight patterns have been the source of much speculation and many different theories. Some probably dated back to when man first witnessed them. It is only recently that computers have enabled us to gain a better understanding of how these birds carry out their complicated maneuvers.

For years, it was thought that they combined to form a sort of collective intelligence. It was believed that this was the only thing preventing them from crashing into one another, as humans would have the same if asked to perform any unrehearsed collective movement in such numbers.

As to why they do this, the jury is still out. One theory is that when they swirl about in this complex and harmonized manner to throw off predatory birds such as peregrine falcons. Another is that they gather to keep warm, or they can collectively locate food sources in that way.

Scientists don’t like the idea that they perform their evening displays for the sheer joy of doing so. They are adamant that the pleasures we humans take from such synchronized activities as dance are a joy that only we as a species can appreciate.

My own theory

I have my questions about that, but I would also like to offer a fourth theory — one that I believe is far more plausible.

These birds flock and then roost together for the express purpose of crapping on our motor cars.

Some may think that once perched, they all huddle tightly together to keep warm through the chill autumn nights. I know better. They are all hopping from branch to branch to find the best position from which to drop their little calling cards onto the cars beneath them.

They currently roost in a large tree just outside my house and will target the vehicle of anyone unfortunate enough to park in the free-fire zone.

The first time they caught me, I had several meetings lined up, and there was no way in which I could both attend them and get to the car wash. Instead, I was forced to drive all over the region in a car that looked like a badly made meringue.

Once this has happened to you, one quickly learns to avoid particular parking spots during the autumn shit season. Convenient parking spots in this vicinity are at a premium, and I have noticed that a Parisian car is currently parked in the drop zone — thinking he cleverly has beaten us, country bumpkins, to such a choice position.

In the coming morning, his car will not be the gleaming machine that it is, as I write.

As we are currently under lockdown, the owner may not even become aware of his error for several days. By that time, it will look like the car was buried in a blizzard.

Deep down inside of me, that small part of me that is both good and kind wants to seek out this unwitting individual and warn him of the danger his car is in. Unfortunately, that minute, gracious component, is heavily outweighed by my altogether more sinister and malicious side — one that I doubt I will be able to resist; besides which, all of my neighbors have noticed this unwitting error of judgment, and they would be really disappointed if I were to crack and spill the beans to some bourgeoise from ‘ le grand ville’.

Starlings drove away many local birds

European starlings are by no means restricted to Europe. There are over 200 million of these birds in North America, all descendants of just 100 birds. Their ancestors were released into Central Park, New York, by Shakespeare aficionados who had romanticized the bird from his play Henry IV.

They are now so numerous in America that they have driven many local birds to the brink of extinction by occupying all available nesting sites. It is not just the Americans who have suffered through trying to recreate the ‘old country.’

In South Africa and Australia, starlings released to foster memories of home for English colonists have gone on to become major invasive pests. So much so, in fact, that both countries have abandoned any attempts to eliminate them.

Tracking only 07 birds in the vicinity

The study of the flight patterns, and the desire to find how the birds avoid slamming into one another, has produced some interesting results.

It has been learned that each bird in the swirling formation keeps track of just seven birds in its immediate vicinity, rather than trying to grasp the moods of the entire flock.

The birds have a higher ability to process temporal resolution than we humans do. They are, therefore, able to react to movement by their neighbors far more quickly than we can.

This helps, to a certain extent, to explain why several hundred thousand birds can perform dazzlingly intricate maneuvers without injury, whereas a single human with a smartphone is more than capable of crashing into the nearest lamp post.

We are not as smart as we think

The lessons learned from these collective behaviors were used to create lifelike movement in animated films and to synchronize giant robotic telescopes around the world, to create a single, more detailed picture of the heavens.

Of course, man wouldn’t be man, if they didn’t put this ancient information to use in a military context. Similar synchronicity is being built into miniature drones that can be released in their thousands from military aircraft.

Scientists may insist that only humans are smart enough to appreciate the sheer beauty of these displays. I wonder if we are half as smart as we think we are.

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