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Word of the Week: Murmuration

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Welcome to Word of the Week! Stay tuned for a new word each Friday to amp up your nature vocabulary!

Murmuration [ mur-muh-rey-shuh n ] (noun): A large group of birds, usually starlings, that all fly together and change direction together, or the act of birds doing this.

Starling murmurations are one of the most breathtaking displays in the natural world, leaving anyone who is lucky enough to witness it in complete awe.

Hundreds or even thousands of starlings will fly together in a whirling, and ever-changing pattern. As they fly, the starlings in the murmuration seem as though they are connected together in some way. They twist and turn and change direction at any given moment.

This behaviour is often thought to be triggered by the presence of a predator like a hawk or peregrine falcon, and the flock’s movement is based on evading actions.

Who could blame them? There is safety in numbers! These united movements ensure that individual starlings do not scatter and instead, are able to move as a team that can deceive or distract a diving raptor.

Understanding what triggers this incredible natural phenomena is important but the real question, that has had people stumped for years, is how do hundreds or even thousands of birds coordinate such complicated movements while in flight?

Advancements in technology have allowed scientists to begin understanding this mystery of murmurations. You might be surprised to learn that the flying patterns of murmurations actually have more in common with physics than biology.

By that, we mean that the secret lies in the same systems that apply to anything on the cusp of a shift, like snow before an avalanche. In the context of these birds, the velocity of one bird affects the velocity of the rest. This is known as scale-free correlation!

Scale-free correlation allows starlings to greatly enhance their “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.

This means that, no matter the size of the flock, 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. Because the size of the flock doesn’t matter, a huge flock is able to respond to a predator attack as effectively and fluidly as a small flock.

Keep and eye out for Starlings on your next visit to High Park!

Want to see it for yourself? Check out this incredible video of a starling murmuration: