Murmurations, those dense clouds of whirling, pulsating, shapeshifting starling flocks, are a breathtaking dusk phenomenon. How do thousands of birds change directions and seemingly move as one without colliding? Dutch filmmaker Jan van Ijken created a short documentary called The Art of Flying to capture this mysterious synchronization. Watch a clip from the film, above, via Aeon. More on this “game of telephone” from All About Birds:
Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members. But the remarkable thing about starling flocks is their fluidity of motion. As the researchers put it, “the group respond[s] as one” and “cannot be divided into independent subparts.”
When one starling changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to the change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. In essence, information moves across the flock very quickly and with nearly no degradation. The researchers describe it as a high signal-to-noise ratio.
This scale-free correlation allows starlings to greatly enhance what the researchers call “effective perceptive range,” which is another way of saying that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock—a huge benefit for a starling trying to avoid a falcon.
Watch more stunning murmuration videos: A Bird Ballet, Wonders in the Sky, and an amazing murmuration of 70,000 starlings. Also: The physics of why birds fly in V-formation and swarms, swarms, swarms.