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How do starlings form living sculptures in the sky?

We explain the secrets behind these birds' amazing flying patterns.

January 7, 2016 | Latest Photo Prev Next
starlingsstarlingsPhoto: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
January 7, 2016 | Latest Photo

It doesn't seem possible that a group of birds could organize themselves so well that they create majestic shapes in the sky. How do they all think as one? But it's well-documented that starlings manage it somehow, in what biologists call "starling murmurations." Like all of the photos shown here, they politely performed for us a few days ago near the southern Israeli city of Rahat.

starlingsIn a big flock, one starling responds to the movements of its seven nearest members. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Starling formations are often an act of defense; they may form when a falcon is nearby, as the little birds try to fly away from the predator.

starlingsStarlings can be spotted by the hundreds of thousands in the Israeli countryside. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

But how do they manage it? It was a mystery for a while, until Andrea Cavagna and colleagues at the National Council of Research and the University of Rome used advanced computational modeling and video analysis to figure it out.

starlingsThe European Starling was originally introduced to the U.S. by Shakespeare enthusiasts in 1880. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

The researchers found that starling flocks model a complex phenomenon, seldom observed in physical and biological systems, called "scale-free correlation."

starlingsSeveral species of starlings can be found throughout the world, from the Arctic Circle to the Negev desert and beyond. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

The birds don't have a leader. Instead, the whole group determines its movement. As the researchers put it, “the group respond[s] as one” and “cannot be divided into independent subparts.”

When one bird changes its speed or direction, the rest respond, giving the flock the ability to react to whatever is going on in the area, sort of like a big game of telephone. Effective, and awesome to look at.

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Related Topics: Animals