The science behind starling murmurations

The winter months are the best time to witness one of Britain's greatest wildlife spectacles – but what is science behind these mass groupings of birds?


21st December 2017

Even though I’ve lived on the Sussex coast for most my of my life, the glorious sight of thousands of starlings tumbling and weaving through the crisp winter sky never fails to excite.

This incredible wildlife spectacle, known as murmuration, has interested scientists for years. Questions, such as why these great congregations occur and how starlings know when to turn in unison without colliding, have been the subject of much debate.

Starlings have extremely fast reaction times and can make changes in their flight direction in a split second. It is now generally thought that flocking helps to protect the starlings from predators. We all know the old saying that there’s safety in numbers.

Put simply, the more starlings there are in a flock the smaller chance each individual has of being caught by an airborne predator. Studies have even shown that individual starlings move around within the flock and try to minimise their time on the edge where they are most vulnerable.

They are gregarious birds, living in flocks for much of the year. But it is in winter, when starling numbers are boosted by migrant birds from colder parts of Europe that these aerial displays are at their breath-taking best.

From November to February, this amazing sight can be seen across Sussex and the rest of the UK. Brighton and Eastbourne are well known for their dramatic displays, but other costal towns such as Bognor, Chichester and Hastings can occasionally host magnificent displays too.

Elsewhere in the country spectacular displays are regularly seen over the Somerset Levels, Gretna Green, Blackpool Pier and the Fens of Cambridgeshire.

Dwindling numbers

Although most murmurations look enormous, these annual flocks are actually quite small compared to what they used to be. In the UK, starling numbers have declined by over 60% in the last 50 years causing this species to be red listed as a bird of high conservation concern.

It is likely that this population crash is due to the shortage of food and nesting sites that comes with more intensive agriculture, increased urban development and the reduction of outbuildings and open eaves on houses.

Discover Britain's top nine starling murmurations here.

Jess Price works for the Sussex Wildlife Trust – find out more about the Trust here.



Main image ©Getty

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