Starling murmurations are one of nature’s most intriguing and dazzling displays. They’ve even been described as ethereal, or haunting almost, as hundreds of birds swirl together in one colossal pulsating organism.
Starling murmurations are not as common as they used to be but there are still many murmuration hotspots where birdwatchers gather every year in the hope of catching a glimpse of this wonderful natural display.
So what actually are starling murmurations, and how do they form?
Like many other birds, starlings flock together in groups at certain times of the year. The unique aspect of a starling murmuration is the movement of the flock itself. Even when murmurations number many thousands of birds, they manage to fly in a collective mathematical synchrony that still baffles researchers today.
Spectacular starling murmuration before they roost
Murmurations typically occur in November until as late in winter as March, whilst the birds are roosting together through the winter. Wintering starlings roost communally pack themselves tightly into their roosts. They gather in vast numbers to head into their safe winter habitats together as one large flock - that is when they might form a murmuration.
This article will explore what murmurations are, how they form and other interesting facts about these remarkable displays.
Murmurations have fascinated ornithologists over the years.
Firstly, starlings tend to roost communally. Prior to roosting, Starlings have to gather in a large flock which starts relatively small and grows into the hundreds, thousands and possibly even the millions. A starling roost might be packed with some 500 birds per cubic metre and the total roost community can number in the millions. This enables birds to share body heat and make the most of their chosen safe roosting sites.
Whilst the flock gathers momentum, the swirling murmuration helps the starlings avoid and ward off predators, which is one reason why starlings likely murmurate. Murmurations dazzle predators in a similar way to how they dazzle us.
Starlings are gregarious birds and they don’t just flock together to roost and form murmurations, but to feed as well.
In the morning, usually between the hours of 6:30 am and 7:30 am, starlings tend to leave their roosts all at once, which is a magical and dazzling display in itself.
Close up of a flock of Starlings murmurating
Individual birds within the murmuration are sometimes moving at speeds exceeding 90mph, but somehow, they don’t collide. Rather, they fly in harmony with almost perfect mathematical precision, but how?
The most compelling evidence suggests that each starling in the flock communicates with just a handful of other starlings, probably just 6 or 7, and follows their cues and copies their movements in a process known as ‘scale-free correlation’. When one bird moves, its nearest neighbours do, and so on and so forth, which propagates a wave-like movement which pulses through the entire flock.
This is similar to how particles move in, say, an avalanche. The movement of each individual particle is intrinsically linked to the movement of another nearby particle.
Quite how or why starlings evolved to do this is unclear and there are almost certainly more layers of meaning waiting to be discovered.
A starling murmuration at sunset
Murmuration is the act of murmuring. A murmur is a generally low sound - like a rumble. If you’re ever lucky enough to get within earshot of a starling murmuration then you can hear the subtle beating of wings which sounds like murmuring. This murmuring sound is why starling murmurations came to be known as they are.
The first murmurations form when birds gather over their roosts - starling flocks in the UK are likely joined by starlings migrating from colder parts of Europe. Roosting starts as early as September and can continue until February or March.
Throughout this period, murmurations can form each evening prior to the starlings flying into their roosts for the night.
Starlings generally flock together each night throughout the colder months when they’re roosting communally - this means that you have more than one night a year to catch a murmuration. In the morning, they leave the roost to feed and return later that evening.
However, a starling murmuration won’t form every night as there has to be sufficient numbers of starlings to form a murmuration.
A large Starling roost in Scotland during winter
In the UK, most of Europe and North America, starlings murmurate when winter begins in earnest. A particularly cold spell in September might prompt starlings to roost earlier than usual, but this is most common in November until February or even March on a colder year.
Starlings tend to murmurate at dusk whilst it’s just about still light. Dusk is the transition from sunset to night time, which gets earlier as winter progresses until the December solstice, at which point dusk starts getting later again.
If you want to spot a murmuration then head out an hour before sunset and wait patiently as the sun goes down.
Each night, before starlings head into their winter roosting site, starlings may form murmurations when there are sufficient numbers in the flock.
Often, though, there aren’t enough starlings to form a murmuration, so you won’t see one each night. You do have more than one chance a year though!
A murmuration of Starlings over the West Pier in Brighton and Hove
It’s only possible to see starlings near or above their roosting sites. Starlings like to roost in forests, dense fields, reed-laden rivers and lakes and manmade structures. A starling roost needs massive capacity to accommodate the entire flock and will be sheltered from terrestrial predators.
Some of the most famous starling murmuration sites in the UK include:
Brighton pier is probably the most-photographed murmuration site as the sea and pier provide the perfect backdrop. Shapwick Heath in Somerset probably hosts the largest starling murmurations.
LargeStarling murmuration over Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve, Somerset, UK
Starling murmurations can last up to 45 minutes, but some may only last just a few minutes. The end of a murmuration is usually sudden - something will seemingly prompt the bids to stream into their roosts, which is a wonderful sight in itself. Larger murmurations might form different groups that enter the roost at staggered intervals.
A substantial murmuration will number at least 500 to 1,000 birds. It is possible for smaller flocks to form fleeting murmurations, but these might only last seconds. The number of starlings in a large murmuration can exceed 100,000 or more. Some murmurations observed in Shapwick Heath, Somerset, have been recorded to contain millions of birds.
Close up of a starling murmuration
The term murmuration refers solely to the flocks formed by starlings, but many other birds form large airborne flocks. Starlings are the only birds that form this trademark pulsating formation that is known as a murmuration, so yes, starlings are the only birds that murmurate.
A murmuration of starlings is typically the term given to a group of starlings whilst in flight, but there are many other terms to describe them whilst on the ground or roosting.
Interestingly, like crows and ravens, some of the terms given to a group of starlings aren't particularly nice. This is more than likely down to many people considering starlings as pests. Either down to their loud, disruptive nature, or their ability to take over and clear out bird feeders in what feels like a matter of seconds.
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