Monday, January 7, 2013

Starling murmuration

What: On Friday, Brian, Meryl, Julia, Cecily and I went down to Snake Mountain for my sister's birthday. On the way back, we spotted a murmuration of starlings at the intersection of Mountain Rd and Rte 17 in Addison. 

We were mesmerized. Even watching the video, I kind of just sink into this lull where time dissipates. My naturalist mind drifts in and out, and I occasionally puzzle through how and why these brilliantly colored birds congregate in such a way, but my mind drifts just as quickly back into the gentle rhythms of the birds moving like fish through the sky. It's one of the most dramatic and muted winter events. Perhaps their banality (there are about 2/3 as many starlings as people in the United States) makes something like this easier to ignore.

Ecological notes: We watched them flying endlessly back and forth in these beautiful organic, fluid streams for about 45 minutes. The smaller flocks would drift in and out of one another, occasionally number in the 400-600 range, then splinter back into groups of 20-100. Very rarely would a starling be flying by itself. One of the more beautiful moments was when a flock would fly over the cattle barn, with a smaller group slipping off into the barn to roost. By the time we left (5pm) there was a cacophonous roar coming from the thousands of starlings in to roost for the night.

It seems like energy conservation is particularly important during the winter, and so this seemingly extravagant display appeared out of place. My initial guesses felt off - could they be socializing? having fun? bonding? vying for rank? Crows roost in such large numbers to stay warm, to socialize, and as I forgot while looking at the starlings, to avoid death by owl. It wasn't until a Cooper's hawk showed up that it started to make sense. When the starlings flap their wings it's visually confusing, and makes it hard to focus on any one bird. They constantly shift directions, in near perfect unison, and as they do their bodies go from fat round silhouettes, to thin slivers barely visibly against the flat light. The Cooper's hawk was there nearly as long as we were and made about a dozen attempts at catching a starling, each time returning to apex of the roof empty taloned.

I doubt it's as simple as predator avoidance (this works similar to dazzle camouflage which I wrote about in my post on locusts). The grace and elegance of the birds flying has it's own peace and quieting energy. Their movements etched these soft liquid lines in the still dusk air of winter, and it just felt good to be in their presence. Maybe it's the goodnight story of the starling. Maybe they do it simply because it's beautiful - like the revival chorus of songbirds in August, or the midnight singing of the hermit thrush, or the fall peeping of the spring peepers. Whatever the reason it was another way to fall in love with winter.

Where: Addison, VT. There's a considerable number of cows in that area (here's a link to where we saw the starlings).

Other notes: My sister, Meryl, is a fantastic film maker and cut together the video from footage she shot with her iPhone. For more of her work, visit:


  1. breathtaking... yes... lull inducing... :)
    thank you for sharing!

    1. I was at a meeting last winter and I spotted a group of starlings - maybe 300 - and I couldn't keep my eyes off them. I kind of tuned out the meeting and got lost in watching them flow back and forth over downtown Winooski.