Swirling, shifting, swooping flocks of starlings, called murmurations, are the stars of a viral video taken by two girls from Ireland who canoed across River Shannon in October. These birds show us not only beauty in nature, but they also help explain the science of flock movement.

In the March-April 2009 issue of Audubon, Peter Friederici wrote about starling murmurations in his piece, "Flight Plan," describing how they move across the sky while researchers study them in Rome: “Thousands coalesce and form dense spheres, ellipses, columns, and undulating lines, sequentially changing the shape of their flocks within moments. They exasperate many residents, who tire of the droppings they leave behind. Others love their elaborate displays,” he says in the story.

A reason for this is what some scientists call the “chorus line hypothesis,” meaning that when one bird moves, the others look for cues from their neighbors to see where they should go. European researchers collaborated in a continent-wide project, called StarFLAG, to better understand those movements.

One of the goals of the study was to look into the relationship between collective movement of the flock and its individuals by simultaneously using three different high-resolution digital cameras with high repetition speed. Together, the images (along with special software) showed the flock from different angles, helping to reveal more about the flock's fluctuations. The research could then be applied to other complex behaviors, like economics, the group theorized.

“The most quintessentially human behavior flocks reveal, though,” says Friederici, “may turn out to be the quest to both understand and enjoy them. People want to know how the world at large operates, but they also want to simply appreciate it. Those flashing dunlins, and those starlings whirling like swift black smoke, will remain a compelling sight no matter what the computer models postulate. At least in part, they’ll continue, as Richard Wilbur wrote, ‘refusing to be caught . . . in the nets and cages of my thought.’”

For more images of murmurations from photographer Richard Barnes, check out this gallery on our website. And for another video, click here.

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