European Starling often evoke ire from bird lovers: This populous species is infamous for its destructive and invasive ways, raiding farm fields and orchards with abandon, viciously outcompeting native species, and costing governments thousands of dollars in management plans.
Native to Eurasia, 60 starlings were released in Central Park in 1890 (as rumor has it, because one Shakespeare lover was trying to introduce all of the Bard’s species to the New World). Since then, their population has exploded to more than 150 million individuals across North America over the last century—that’s almost one bird for every two people in the United States. And while birders may disparage these avians for out-maneuvering many native species, they do have one thing going for them: Throughout the fall and winter, starlings gather in roosts that can swell into the tens of thousands, taking over the sky in a beautiful (albeit terrifying), plague-like swarm known as a murmuration. It’s a breathtaking sight that leaves even the most surly spectators in a state of wonder.
Despite this seemingly synchronized display of flight, the act is not orchestrated, at least not in the way one might assume. Zachary Slavin, Audubon’s own Citizen Science Program Manager, recently sat down with Voices of America to explain the performance (video above). Slavin explains:
“...like a school of fish, there is not a leader of the flock," he said, "but rather each individual bird is watching the birds nearest to it, keeping a set distance from them, and so they are all traveling together and reacting together.”
This group mentality may be why their global colonization has been so successful.
"When they're under attack from a predator like a falcon or a hawk, flying in these huge flocks with a really unpredictable motion and lots of individual birds makes it really hard for a predator to track individuals and catch individual birds," Slavin told VOA.
Today European Starlings can be found on every continent but Antarctica. Still, their rorschachian movements across an autumnal sky leave something to appreciate. Learn more about the murmurations and what makes them such an effective defense against predation here.