Featured Creature: Starling

Photo: Menno Schaefer from shutterstock

What creature flocks together to produce a living Aurora? 

The Starling!

Photo: Menno Schaefer from shutterstock

What is a starling, and how does it model good group behavior?

Photo: Hans Veth from Unsplash

The Starling is a moderate-sized bird about 8 inches long at maturity with a shiny, sometimes iridescent, dark coat and a raucous repertoire of chirps and cackles. It’s distributed across Europe, West Asia and North America and is famous for its behavior in flocks—or rather, murmurations. If you’ve never seen a Starling murmuration, read no further until you’ve watched this (full screen recommended):  

These stunning flash mobs of 500 to 3000 birds usually pop up in fall and winter near roosting sites over open spaces at dusk, and can occasionally be spotted in urban areas. The performance always begins rather tentatively with random pirouettes by a bird here and there, but before long, the corps de ballet gathers into a gorgeous choreography with a cacophonous score of a thousand tweets. The performance always ends the same way, in a group bow at the front of the stage as the birds swoop down to their separate resting places for the night. 

How do Starlings know the choreography to their murmurations?

When was the last time you saw a bunch of birds rehearsing their moves? Spontaneous eruptions are one thing, (though don’t ask me to explain them) but individual creative intentionality is what we reserve for ourselves as humans, and not for the rest of nature. 

We are probably right to reject the idea that Starlings rehearse, but we are right for the wrong reasons. There is intelligence behind the Starlings’ murmurations, but it’s not the kind that human intelligence has so far been able to comprehend. If you’re thinking that the Starlings’ graceful moves are all factory installed, a computer program that directs every swoop and squawk, you would be wrong. 

This is how we often (mistakenly) assume that non-humans are able to do complex coordinated tasks that strike us as “almost human”—an onboard central command issues orders for the migration of birds and butterflies, or for the construction of anthills and beaver dams. They do it by ”instinct”, we tell ourselves, meaning that we see them as something very close to a robot.  

When a bird becomes a “boid” 

Scientists of all kinds have been puzzling murmuration-like phenomena for years using computers and the tools of physics and mathematics. There is general agreement that murmuration offers the Starling some safety in numbers and some protection from predators, mostly falcons. Starling research also demonstrates that flocking movements are still beyond the reach of our computer programs. 

But help is on the way, because now computer animators are on the case, creating “boids”, virtual birds which simulate Starling behavior. By attempting to imitate murmuration, a team of gamer-scientists broke down the skills that each bird must bring to the ballet, including (for starters) responses to gravity, velocity and wind drag, the ability to turn on a dime in any of three dimensions, and sensitivity to the locations and direction of the other birds in the flock. Here’s how they picture the problem:

To build a simulated flock, these researchers started with what they assumed was the interest of each individual bird. Combining the statistics from many other murmuration studies, they wrote three basic rules into their simulation programs that relate each individual boid with its flockmates: 1. avoid collisions, 2. match velocity, 3. stay close. 

It comes down to individual Starlings inventing their own unique path through the sky by locating themselves with the path of the group. It’s a process full of split-second responses in each bird. The whole group is shaped by thousands of individual choices, while at the same time the group is shaping each of those choices—complexity enough for any computer. But there is no choreographer, no master artist.    

After running their programs and studying the behavior of their on-screen avatars, here’s just one of the gamer-scientists’ take-homes: boid flocks behaved most like bird flocks when each boid was able to relate to at least six or seven of the birds nearest them. The computers could handle three rules and six or seven flockmates, but the birds are actually handling much more than that. Well, it’s a start.

What can we learn from the Starling? 

Though we should refrain from projecting human assumptions onto Starlings, either seeing them as mindless followers of instinct or performers of a dance who prepare how humans might, we can gain a lot from studying their graceful behavior. The key to the starling is something which has to do with relationships—relationships to other living things and, yes, relationships among internal capacities brought into the mix by each individual. 

In that moment when we see in the Starling’s handiwork a painter’s inspired brushstroke, we may be committing  the age-old mistake of seeing ourselves in everything, but we are also allowing ourselves to see nature’s artistry as in  line with our own. For that moment, we are seeing ourselves securely in nature, not outside of it, and we’re leaving open the possibility that human art, like bird art, just might depend on more interactions of countless individuals than we are normally willing to admit.

Murmuration has no single creator, no superstar artist, but the aesthetic rush we get from the bird ballet is telling us that we may learn something from Starlings about how we work. Maybe we also create within a way which, as the researchers claim, “optimizes the balance between individual effort and group cohesiveness.” 

The answer, when we find it, is not going to be simple, but our reflex answer—that humans make unique artistic creations independent of nature’s laws, while nature’s creations are something else altogether—will no longer wash. Thank you, Starlings.