The Sound of Science - "Starlings in Flight"

Oct 19, 2018

Sam: Hi I’m Sam Watt from NIU STEM Outreach and this is the Sound of Science on WNIJ. I’m joined in the studio by Kate Powers who’ll help answer a question submitted to us by Elisa.

Kate: Hi Sam. Yeah, Elisa has a question about a spectacular natural phenomenon that occurs right in our own backyard.

S: Elisa asks, “Why do starling birds join up in those large groups and swoop around the sky?”

NIU STEM Outreach

K: It’s an awesome sight. When starlings group together like that and move in unison, we call it a murmuration. You can see these murmurations at dusk during the colder months, usually over a meadow or farm field.

S: I’ve seen those groups of birds! I didn’t realize it was a specific kind of bird that created those shapes.

K: Yeah, starlings are a very common bird. However, they are native to Europe and so are an invasive species. How they found their way to America is a pretty strange story. Back in the 19th century a Shakespeare enthusiast in New York City decided that all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works should be present in America. So he released starlings and a few other types into Central Park.

S: So from a few birds in Central Park we now have clouds of starlings flying over the Midwest. But you still haven’t answered why the birds fly in those formations.

K: The birds are long distance travelers, flying up to 30 miles from their home roost each day. During the evening they begin the journey back to their preferred roosting spot. As they travel they join up with other birds headed back to the same spot. The flock gets larger and larger, providing warmth and security during the chilly autumn night.

S: So, it’s evening rush hour for the birds! But how do they manage to fly so close without bumping into each other? And how do they know when to turn and swoop?

K: That is the real question. A few years back a computational biologist did research on murmurations and discovered that each bird is paying attention to exactly seven of its closest neighbors, maintaining a constant distance and speed in relation to the others. But there are still so many questions about how the birds communicate or make decisions as a flock.

K: Thanks for your question Elisa! And please keep them coming to stemoutreach@niu.edu. This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

S: Where you learn something new every day.