October – A Murmuration

Waiting at the bus stop just after sunset, I suddenly caught a glimpse of a cloud swirling low overhead. Tiny black specks coalesced then spread apart, like a breath morphing across the sky, quickly disappearing in the distance.

Breathless myself, I gazed beyond into the turquoise sky, reorienting my brain: That was a murmuration of starlings, flying in magical formation in search of a night roost.

Another swoop came from behind, even closer above, sucking any thoughts out of my head. This time, the cloud dissipated into three parts, two swirling off in different directions. Transfixed I watched three, four… six more rounds of the most exquisite choreography I’ve ever witnessed. I was ecstatic.

Sometimes, I focused on a single bird, with its small torpedo-shaped body, stubby tail, and its sharp little wings beating in a constant flutter. I pretended to be that bird, fluttering my wings ever-so-fast, keeping my peripheral vision on the starlings around me, speeding up and slowing down, then shifting positions when another came too close or got too far away.

I then fell back to watching the cloud assume myriad shapes and shadings. Sometimes it was almost circular; other times a long stream. Certain areas would become dark, like shadows hat shifted and changes. Sections would break off but stay nearby.

Each time the cloud circled back overhead, the configurating altered: kinetic art at its most exquisite.

For decade, scientists have studied they mystifying behavior that also appears in schools of fish and large populations of bees and ants. Southwest Airlines even applied a similar king of ant-based computer simulation to facilitate aircraft boarding. They found that ants do complex things with simple rules–and that people boarded more effectively without seat assignments!

“Swarm intelligence” includes the following three “rules.” No central control over the individuals; one action stimulating the next action; and simple rules of interaction leading to intelligent global behavior.

Here’s a sample of “swarm rules” 1. Move in the same direction as your neighbors; 2. Stay close; 3. Avoid collisions.

Why do animals do this? Large swarms reduce the risk of an individual’s predation. Imagine a hungry hawk on the prowl–one single bird meal could get you through a cold winter’s night. And there before you is a gigantic mass of flighty little morsels, each moving in swoops and dives. You’re confused about where to make your move–and before you’ve decided, they’re gone. Efficient collaboration saved the day–at least for the starlings.

Because large flocks also draw more attention from predators, individual birds sometimes choose strategic positions in the swarm, depending on their abilities. “Lead bird” is often the safest. By the time the flock is noticed, that bird is far ahead. Those on the outside, along with the laggards in the back, are most at risk for being picked off.

Not all birds swarm. It’s mostly migrants: 2000 of the 10,000 species worldwide. In North America, many move north n spring to utilize longer days ad more time to forage and fee their young.

Witnessing the starling swarms has added another dimension to “starling.” In addition to “gawky black bird, strutting pigeon-toed across a yard, poking for ants,” it’s also “an areal sprite, fluttering in a phantasmagoric dance.” Back at the bus stop, the murmuration disappeared. I sent my “good luck” wish into the beyond.

PS: Google “starling murmuration” then set back and take a deep breath.

by Ann Guenther, 2014 from her book Nature Tales