As a short winter's day ends and the light fades from the sky, a dense, pulsating, and humming mass materializes against the amber, blues, and violets of dusk. A flock of Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), several thousand-strong, has gathered to roost for the night.
This spectacle, known as a murmuration, or sometimes, ‘Black Sun’, is one of the great curiosities in the bird world and an amazing wildlife experience that many UK and US birdwatchers can enjoy without needing to fly off to some exotic location.
Read on to learn more about this phenomenon and where and how you can enjoy it for yourself.
Spectacular starling murmuration before they roost
Starlings gather to roost in huge flocks in the winter in some parts of their range, typically between November and February. As more and more birds arrive, they gather into a dense, shapeshifting ball in the sky above their roost known as a murmuration, particularly if a predator is lurking nearby.
Murmuration is a term used only to describe this flocking behavior in Starlings. It stems from the word ‘murmur’, which is a continuous, low humming sound. Observers may hear the sound of their wings, as well as their calls, for up to three-quarters of an hour before the birds descend to rest for the night.
You’re probably wondering why Starlings put on such a show before bedding down for the night, and there are a few theories to explain this behavior. Continue reading to learn about the science of murmurations.
Starlings probably benefit from gathering in huge flocks in the same way that prey animals do all over the world. From shoals of sardines to herds of gazelles, animals know that they are much less likely to be taken out by a predator when they gather in large numbers.
A murmuration of Starlings wheeling through the air is a mesmerizing sight for us, and it may have a similar effect on predators. A hungry bird of prey has a tough time singling out a target from thousands of twisting and turning birds in the flock.
Starlings are non-migratory birds across much of their range, and those that do head south do not leave the temperate zone. That means they have to brave the cold to survive each winter. Fortunately, the birds can benefit from shared body heat by roosting at densities of hundreds of birds per cubic meter.
Close up of a flock of Starlings murmurating
Starling flocks move as a collective in seemingly random directions and without a clear leader. You would think they would collide with each other, but this just doesn’t happen.
Exactly how they coordinate so well needs further study, but it appears that each Starling in the flock moves to maintain a safe distance from its nearest neighbors. So, if one bird moves at the edge of the flock, that shift pulls or pushes all the other birds in sequence.
A starling murmuration at sunset
The Starling is a beautiful enough creature when seen on its own, but the movements of a murmuration are truly remarkable.
The Starlings move in waves, constantly pulsing between dark and light as they turn their bodies to and fro. The murmuration is a constantly evolving and morphing shape that frequently splits into separate groups, each mutating in its own unique way before reforming.
This captivating spectacle ends in the grand finale when they collectively decide it’s time to descend to their roost. We don’t know exactly how the decision is made, but the birds seem to vanish before your eyes as they drop straight out of the sky. The flock makes its next collective decision the next morning around sunrise when they take off en masse to forage for the day.
A large murmuration of Starlings, in a cloud shape
Starlings are extremely widespread in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and birdwatchers could see flocks gathering to roost almost anywhere that they occur outside of the breeding season.
They have also been introduced to many countries outside of their range, including:
Starling Murmurations tend to form above favored roost sites like reedbeds, large trees, and some large human-made structures. Sightings have been made in the following areas:
Starlings murmuration over Aiguamolls De L Emporda Nature Park, Spain
Starlings are widespread and common in the United States, with an estimated population as high as 200 million. Murmurations occur everywhere from Washington to California and from Florida to New York. Look out for murmurations wherever these birds gather to roost in the evening.
A murmuration of Starlings over the West Pier in Brighton and Hove
Starlings are a natural part of the ecosystem in their native range but are seen as an invasive species where they have been introduced. Wherever they occur, Starlings interact with other plant and animal species as both consumers and prey items for larger carnivores.
Starling murmurations result in massive local deposits of droppings that can be several inches thick. While toxic in the short term, these nutrient hotspots can act as a fertilizer as they break down and spread into the vicinity.
A large Starling roost in Scotland during winter
The best time of day to witness a Starling murmuration is around dusk (just after sunset). It’s best to arrive well in advance and enjoy the sights and sounds while finding a good spot to view the spectacle. However, there are no guarantees, and some evenings will produce nothing more than a steady stream of birds flying in directly to their roost.
You don’t necessarily need any gear to enjoy your experience, although binoculars will come in handy, especially if you’re far from the action. Don’t forget your camera either; you’ll probably want to study your pictures and videos later. Temperatures drop fast after sunset in winter, so make sure you’re dressed warmly, and don’t forget a hot thermos/flask for a warm beverage!
You might not be the only one enjoying the show, so please have respect for your fellow bird watchers and your surroundings. You’ll have a much better experience in peace and quiet.
LargeStarling murmuration over Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve, Somerset, UK
A Starling murmuration provides a fantastic challenge for photographers and videographers. But how do you get the perfect shot?
Depending on the desired image, photographers will usually benefit from faster lenses to capture the moving murmuration under low light conditions. A large aperture and higher ISO also helps to let in as much light as possible. A wide-angle lens may work at very close distances, but a standard kit lens or medium telephoto lens may work better to fill the frame.
If all that sounds a little complicated, go ahead and use the auto function on your camera for the best results. One important tip is to choose your angle wisely to incorporate pleasing colors in the sky and an interesting background. Whether photographing or filming, a tripod will come in handy for keeping your camera steady. By loosening the ball head you may be able to pan and follow the subject for an interesting image or longer clip.
Whatever your photography or filming goals, it’s best to practice your technique in the evenings leading up to your visit to a Starling roost site. This will allow you to finetune your settings at leisure instead of rushing it out in the field.
If you are filming in a reserve, make sure you have any necessary permits and stay within demarcated areas. It's important to minimize your impact on the birds and on other birdwatchers enjoying the spectacle.
Close up of a starling murmuration
The European Starling may not have a great reputation outside of its native range, but these are undeniably interesting and beautiful birds, especially in the breeding season when adults develop bright yellow bills and iridescent purple and green plumage.
These intelligent and adaptable birds forage for invertebrates, grain, and berries, and they often visit backyard birdfeeders and birdtables for a free meal. Starlings have an amazing ability to mimic other birds and sounds from their environment, and some captive birds even mimic human speech.
Check out this guide to learn much more about the Starling.
Although their murmurations are the best-known, Starlings are not the only birds that gather in huge numbers before roosting. Other species, like the Barn Swallow and Red-billed Quelea, also roost in magnificent flocks.
A flock of Starlings feeding and foraging on the ground together
Starling numbers have declined in both their native range in the United Kingdom and in the United States, where they are considered invasive. Their decline is thought to be the result of modern intensive farming practices and a lack of their usual insect prey.
You can encourage these birds in their native range by supporting low-intensity farming and by providing nest boxes and supplementary food sources. It would be a real shame if the next generation were to grow up without seeing remarkable natural phenomena like the great Starling murmurations!
The Starling is a ubiquitous bird that many people see every day without thinking much of it. Seeing thousands of them wheeling above a reedbed or a copse of roost trees in the day’s fading light can be a real eye-opener that will make you think a little differently about the true wonder and value of the world’s birdlife.
A large murmuration of starlings
Starlings are far less communal in the warmer months when pairs form to raise their young. Murmurations occur primarily in the winter because they are no longer nesting and benefit from safety in numbers and the warmth of the flock.
Starling murmurations can vary from just a few hundred individuals to over a million. The largest known gatherings in the UK total about 6 million individuals, although estimates from Italy suggest a stunning 10 million Starlings!
Few predators have the speed and agility to single out a Starling from the murmuration. However, the Peregrine Falcon is up to the task. These supreme hunters are often seen stooping into the flock to catch a last meal for the day. The Sparrowhawk is another bird of prey that will try its luck, although these raptors are more adept at hunting birds lower to the ground.
Murmurations usually last just a few minutes, although the spectacle can continue for up to 45 minutes in some cases.
Close up of a European Starling
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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