Now that the desk is by the window in the Wild Birds Unlimited East Lansing store, I watch the massive flocks of starlings perform incredible aerial displays above the busy Lake Lansing Rd. I started to wonder why the birds never crash into each other or how the birds seem to always maintain their place despite the shifting in the flock.
Physicist Andrea Cavagna also asked those questions watching the birds overhead in his native Rome. He was so intrigued by the mystery that he organized StarFlag: Starlings in Flight, a multidisciplinary, multinational collaboration to study the birds' flocking behavior.
He found that if the flock is under attack from a predator like a Peregrine Falcon, they will spread apart. At other times, when the flock is making a directional change, they will merge much closer together.
The study concluded the birds base every movement on what their wing-mates are doing. "They always interact with six or seven birds irrespective of what is the distance of these seven birds… An interaction based upon the number of neighbors rather than their distance, implies rather complex cognitive capabilities in birds," Cavagna said in a news release.
The swoop and sweep of a murmuration of European Starlings before they settle down for the night is one of nature's most spectacular sights, and still something of a mystery to birdwatchers. It is believed that the flocking behavior allows thousands of eyes to watch for predators on the roost site. It also warms their bodies before a cold night ahead and somehow social dominance is being determined. The dominant males end up with the warmest perches for the night while the female and juvenile birds roost out further.
If you’ve never had a chance to view these amazing birds, the following video will show you a little bit of the amazing.
STARFLAG: a project on collective animal behaviour
Written by Andrea Cavagna http://bit.ly/6g1Wpm