Starling Murmuration – A Natural Wonder

From the very first day of our existence in the world, we always try to find out reasons behind everything that happen around us. Sometimes we get the answer, sometimes we don’t. Today we will try to find out such an answer of a very beautiful natural wonder ‘Murmuration’. So, what is Murmuration? Let us find.

Nothing is more pleasing than to see a flock of birds flying together and displaying extremely coordinated movement by shape-shifting like a cloud. A few or thousands of birds (the starlings) moving and twining in an unpredictable pattern, coagulates our mind in a very mesmerizing way. This particular phenomenon is called Murmuration or Starling Murmuration. So, let us know the actual phenomena behind its occurrence.

In a modern digital world, it is still very elusive to achieve coordinated movement using machines like plane or helicopter but these small birds achieve it seamlessly. To investigate it, a group of theoretical physicists from the University of Rome, led by Giorgio Parisi, published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. They explained the phenomena as:

“The change in the behavioral state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is. Scale-free correlations provide each animal with an effective perception range much larger than the direct inter individual interaction range, thus enhancing global response to perturbations. Our results suggest that flocks behave as critical systems, poised to respond maximally to environmental perturbations.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In 2012 this group took the very next step to measure the effect of a single bird to its closest neighbors. They discovered that one bird’s movement only affects its seven closest neighbors. In other words, one bird affects its seven closest neighbors, and each of those neighbors’ movements affects their closest seven neighbors and on through the flock like a chain.

The Murmuration can be better understood if we study similar systems with phase transition like crystal formation, avalanches, metal becoming magnetized, liquid turning to gases. In each of the above-mentioned system at a particular moment in time, the phase change of a single element affects the whole system within no time. The phenomenon is described as scale-free correlation and each transformation is called critical transition. In such critical systems, size does not matter. If a single bird changes speed or direction, no matter how small it is, it affects the whole system as it can be seen for above-mentioned cases.

Quoting the words of Brandon Keim, a Wired Science reporter,

 “In particle physics, synchronized orientation is found in systems with “low noise,” in which signals are transmitted without degrading. But low noise isn’t enough to produce synchronized speeds, which are found in critical systems. The researchers give the example of ferromagnetism, where particles in a magnet exhibit perfect interconnection at a precise, “critical” temperature.”

“The closest fit to equations describing starling flock patterns come from the literature of “criticality,” of crystal formation and avalanches — systems poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation.”

But the question still stands how a small bird can respond to the change quickly? The answer is still unknown. Irene Giardina, a physicist from the University of Rome reports, the “most surprising and exotic feature” of the flocks was their near-instantaneous signal-processing speed. “How starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery to us,”

Giardina’s team made a substantial endeavor to explain the starling murmuration but it’s only the beginning. There are exciting prospects of these phenomena in science as well as in the society. The research team gave a hint of implications for uncertainty management in social and technological networks which could open a new doorway for the artificial intelligence world.

So, prepare to be amazed!

Here is one amazing video of Starling Murmuration.

Video Credit: Uzoo|Youtube

(Archived WebCite® ID: 6pWF8WyHD)


Sayan is a theoretical physicist from Plasma Science discipline. He is a front-end developer with an eye for details and a passion for perfection. He enjoys writing popular science articles and taking part in discussions.


3 thoughts on “Starling Murmuration – A Natural Wonder

Comments are closed.